Interview by Lara Lillibridge, Interviews Editor
The Books: She/He/They/Me: For the Sisters, Misters, and Binary Resisters (March 2019; Sourcebooks) was the recipient of 2020 Stonewall Honor Book Award – Israel Fishman Nonfiction Book Award. If you’ve ever questioned the logic of basing an entire identity around what you have between your legs, it’s time to embark on a daring escape outside of the binary box…Open your eyes to what it means to be a boy or a girl — and above and beyond! Within these pages, you get to choose which path to forge. Explore over one hundred different scenarios that embrace nearly every definition across the world, over history, and in the ever-widening realms of our imagination! — from the book jacket
Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy: The Evolution of Gender, Identity, and Race in Sports, released in June 2020 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, uses the world of sports to examine the history, controversy, and current conversations around sexuality, race, and social justice, bringing in the stories of today’s athletes to highlight where things stand in the present. Topics covered include gender segregation, gender testing, transgender athletes, sexuality, homophobia, globalization, race, and activism. — from the book jacket
The Author: Robyn Ryle is a writer and a professor of sociology and gender studies at Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana, where she has been teaching sociology of gender and other courses for 20 years. She went to Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, for her undergraduate degrees in sociology and English with a concentration in women’s studies. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Indiana University-Bloomington and is originally from northern Kentucky. Find her on her website, Twitter, or Instagram.
Lara Lillibridge: You know I am a huge fan of SHE/HE/THEY/ME: For the Sisters, Misters, and Binary Resisters, which uses the choose-your-own-adventure style to teach about gender and sexuality. I love how you used such a creative form for delivering factual information. It was fun to read and I think it really appeals to readers of all ages. How did you come up with the idea?
Robyn Ryle: I teach Sociology of Gender—it’s a great class. I think a lot of students, especially cisgender students who haven’t thought a lot about gender, get their minds blown in terms of thinking about how our culture talks about gender. We’re told that the binary is real, and that there are only two kinds of gender: male and female. In the class, what I’m doing is chipping away at those ideas. And that’s great, but I teach at a small college, I teach like 20 students a semester, and I thought, there should be a way to get those ideas out to a wider audience.
Originally we tried to sell the book as young adult (YA), because I want kids in high school, and middle school kids to be able to pick up this book way before they get to college, if they get to college at all. But you know, kids aren’t going to pick up this nonfiction book. It needs to be interesting.
I did read choose-your-own-adventure books as a child, and Neil Patrick Harris wrote his autobiography as a choose-your-own-adventure, so there were some things that were already out there. It just occurred to me, what if I did the nonfiction book as a choose your own adventure? And at first, I thought, will that work? It was really interesting to think that it could help people think about gender in ways that they haven’t before.
The danger for me is that gender isn’t a choice, and as a sociologist who has many transgender and nonbinary students, you have to be careful with implying that it is a choice. But in the choose-your-own-adventure style, you can explore what it would mean to be gendered in different ways. And really see how it’s not about the choices you make as an individual, but choices that have already been made for you. What is the culture you were born into?
If you’re born into contemporary American culture, though it’s changing a lot, the idea that there are only two genders is very much there. Whereas if you were born in a culture with a gender variant category, that would be very different. You’re choosing [in the book] but what it’s revealing is that a lot of choices have already been made for you.
LL: That’s a perfect way to explain it. Was it hard to get a publisher on board with that idea, or were they captivated?
RR: We had interest from different publishers, but Sourcebooks was the only one to make an offer. I don’t know how familiar you are with Sourcebooks. They are small, they aren’t one of the big five, but the president and owner is a woman, and everyone I worked with was a woman. Their tagline is “books change lives.” So I was really happy to be able to work with them because they definitely have a mission in terms of the books that they publish. Grace Menary-Winfield was my editor, and she really got it—she understood exactly what I was trying to do.
I worried about trying to sell it as YA. In order to talk about gender, you have to talk about biology, and I didn’t know when we used words like clitoris or penis, if that was going to freak people out. But I was very happy because Grace at Sourcebooks said no, there’s no need to edit or scale back that language or anything.
LL: I love them as a publisher. I’ve always loved their catalogs. So on to your second book, which is actually your third book. I haven’t read your first book, I hate to say.
RR: It’s a Sociology of Gender textbook, so you know…
LL: So I’m forgiven?
RR: Yes. It’s part of why I wrote She/He/They/Me. A lot of the material in the textbook is similar, but it’s a textbook. It’s meant for a college classroom. As far as textbooks go, I think it’s interesting, but it’s still a college textbook.
LL: In your new book, Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy: The Evolution of Gender, Identity, and Race in Sports, you went with a more traditional format. You said in the beginning of the book that you try to always bring up sports in your classes, and I thought that was a really interesting lens. The book isn’t just about sports—it’s about American culture in regard to gender, race, colonialism, and privilege. But by keeping to that narrow focus you’re able to make it very specific and not too long. So I wondered, how you decided to write this book and why you chose young adult, and if there were any challenges with that.
RR: One of the classes I teach, and that I’ve taught ever since graduate school is Sociology of Sport. And students are always like, ‘what is that?’ There are a lot of topics like sport or pop culture that a lot of academics don’t talk about. I do love sports, I’m a big sports fan, and it’s incredibly fertile territory to talk about gender, race, colonialism, activism, and social change.
I think of myself as a public sociologist, that is trying to bring sociology to a wider audience. So like, what do people want to read about? People like sports. I’ve wanted to be able to talk about the things sociologists talk about—inequality, activism, the social construction of gender, the social construction of race. Those are key things you’d get in any sociology class, and they’re super important. They were important before the recent surge of Black Life Matter protests, and they’re even more important now.
It makes it more interesting and digestible to use the lens of sports. Especially demonstrating how gender is socially constructed—the history of gender testing in the Olympics is one of the most concise, easy ways to demonstrate that we are making up this idea of sex. You have these heartbreaking stories of women who, depending on what the test looks like, are either allowed to compete as women or aren’t allowed to compete as women. And if you can’t come up with a reliable test for it, maybe it’s something that doesn’t really exist, that you’ve made up.
I really enjoyed writing that chapter in particular (the history of gender testing in the Olympics) and it’s really sad, especially because it’s still happening, but it’s really interesting stuff. I’ve found in classes that I teach that that helps the lightbulb go off in students’ heads—they see, yeah, that’s messed up. There’s something going on with gender if you repeatedly can’t find a test that says this is a woman and this is a man. As well as why are you testing in the first place, and only women?
LL: Right—that struck me so strongly that men are never tested. And I agree with you that sports as a topic is a nice way to get someone’s attention who might not be interested in gender or race, or they think it doesn’t apply to them.
Going back to Black Lives Matter, one thing you wrote about how non-competitive women’s collegiate sports were originally, and how the HBCUs were the first group to allow women to truly compete and not just play. You wrote,
Some Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) did depart from this noncompetitive model. This was because they were sheltered from or ignored by the dominant model of physical education programs at white colleges.
And you talked about how Tennessee State University in particular led the way in competitive women’s sports for years. Then further in the book, you explained that Title IX was principally authored by Rep. Patsy Mink, a Japanese-American. Later still you wrote about Curt Flood, who was fundamental in establishing free agent rights for players in Major League Baseball.
Because we’re just coming off of Pride month, that led me back to Marsha P. Johnson who led the Stonewall riots. And it struck me that so many of the civil rights movements that as white people we benefit from—we’ve written out the Black people whose shoulders we’re standing on. And I thought that was such an important thread to this book.
RR: I teach a class called Race, Gender, and Sexuality, that’s basically all about intersectionality, so I try to be intersectional about how we can’t look at those categories separately. It doesn’t make sense to talk about Black Lives Matter unless you’re also talking about gender and sexuality and the situation, especially of Black transwomen—I don’t know what the total number of murders is for this year, but it’s horrifying.
LL: It’s heartbreaking. And they’re not even reported on in newspapers.
RR: Exactly. So there’s a chapter on gender testing, there’s a chapter on lesbian women in sports, on gay men in sports, on transgender people in sports. I tried as much as possible to be intersectional. Like in the chapter on transgender women in sports, Andraya Yearwood is a young African-American transwoman, and it’s important that she’s a Black transwoman to her experience as an athlete. So I tried as much as possible to be intersectional in talking about all these issues.
LL: Something I’ve really struggled with as a parent talking to my own children is explaining how a perceived positive stereotype still hurts people. And you talked so clearly about it:
The repercussions of believing that one racial or ethnic group could be better at golf or basketball or curling might not at first seem to be particularly damaging. After all, a belief in the biological superiority of African Americans in sports like basketball is about their superiority—ways in which they’re better that some other group. But these beliefs are part of a larger ideology that holds that if African Americans or other groups are athletically superior, they’re inferior in other areas, like intelligence and leadership ability.
And then you go on to explain that Black athletes don’t get quarterback positions, for example, which often lead to coaching positions post-career. And I think people struggle with what they see as a positive stereotype—for example, that all Asians are good at math—and understanding that these attitudes can still hurt people.
RR: And you know, examples in ways that that hurts African American people—I know stories of African-American professors who teach Anthropology and Biology, and people on campus just walk up to them and ask, ‘oh, are you the basketball coach?’ There’s this assumption that if you’re a Black professional on a historically white university or college campus, that you’re there for sports, you’re not there for academics.
And you just have to think as a sociologist and someone who thinks systematically, if there’s a stereotype and people are saying, ‘oh, Black people are really good at sports, or singing, or dancing, or Asian-Americans are really good at math,’ well, those stereotypes are still serving people in positions of dominance.
You have to figure out why is that stereotype okay? Why is that stereotype acceptable? In a racist system, those stereotypes still serve the system of dominance. So in the example of African-Americans being better athletes, the flip side is that they are saying they aren’t as smart. It’s as if they are saying, ‘OK, we’ll give Black people that (that they’re better athletes), but we’ll keep everything else for ourselves.’
And also, it tinges professional athletes in sports that are dominated by African Americans, or in the case of Baseball, Latinos. I think the hostility that you have towards professional athletes is always tinged by the racial composition of those athletes. So our anger about professional athletes making too much money, is that in part because they are mostly Black and brown people? We don’t think about the owners, who are making far more money than the athletes that they pay, and are almost completely white.
LL: I really liked your discussion on the problems of college athletes. I used to do graphic design for a company that made colligate apparel, and we had to send royalty checks for every pair of socks we sold back to the universities. All the money that they make on the backs of these athletes never trickles down. What I didn’t realize until I read your book, was that academic scholarships are so different. I knew that athletes didn’t have time to have a job, but I didn’t know that their scholarships often don’t cover everything they need to just survive.
RR: And they’re not allowed to work, yeah.
LL: When you decided to write Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy, did you have to do a lot of new research, or was it just compiling what you already had? Your book is pretty current—it goes up to 2019, for sure, and includes Colin Kaepernick, how did the timing work? I mean, it can take a couple of years to get a book published.
RR: It’s out now, and there’s so much happening now—I’m like, Colin Kaepernick, vindicated, finally, at least to some extent. I did have to do quite a bit of research. I teach Sociology of Sport, but at the time I wrote the book I hadn’t taught it in a while because of the rotation. But also, I wanted a lot more historical background.
One of the things I didn’t know a lot about was the colonial aspect. You can tell from the titles where I started, like, Why Are the Dutch so Good at Baseball? What I knew was that the Kingdom of the Netherlands wins the world baseball classic. And you know, my husband and I are baseball fans. And that’s fascinating, how sports spread around the world through colonial histories, and then you see how globalization is reflected in sports.
People are moving around more, ideas are moving around more. In soccer worldwide you see the legacy of colonialism—the French men’s soccer team is comprised of a lot of players of African descent. I did have to do a lot more research than I did for She/He/They/Me which I knew most of that stuff because I teach gender every year. I didn’t know as much of the sports history. But it was fun. It was fascinating—there’s really so much stuff out there.
In the chapter on gay men in sports, I talk a little bit about figure skating. And you’d assume that’s a sport that would be very accepting of gay men. But it really hasn’t been. Adam Rippon, and Eric Radford, but that’s really recent. And part of that has to do with the history of figure skating trying to position itself as more masculine, and even different styles of figure skating that are perceived as more masculine or feminine, and pushing men towards the more masculine styles. So it’s fascinating that it’s in every sport in these weird ways.
There’s lots of stuff that got left out because I wanted to keep it short and really readable for a young adult audience. But it was fun finding out all that stuff.
LL: You talk about keeping it to a manageable size. How hard was it to cut, trim, and to keep your focus tight?
RR: It was harder in some chapters than others. The chapter on gender testing in the Olympics, I could have gone on and on. It infuriates me. It’s one of those things that makes me really mad. Actually, there’s a lot of stuff in the book that makes me really mad. But that chapter it was hard to stay on track. The chapter on race in general in sports—not on colonialism, but race in general—there is so much to say there.
I don’t think when I wrote the proposal and pitched it to my agent that it encompassed social class. I thought about it a lot. Class in American is not a sexy topic, though people may be more interested now. But there’s a lot of really interesting things to say about social class. I would have loved to have a chapter on that. It often intersects with race and gender, but not always.
I’ll give you an example. Soccer in the US is a middle-class sport, but in the rest of the world, it’s not—it’s very much seen as working class. And that intersects with gender in interesting ways. Why does the US dominate women’s soccer? Because a lot of middle-class girls play. But around the world, soccer isn’t that accessible to girls. So yes, in certain chapters it was harder than others not to lose focus and not go on and on. There’s just so much to say about some of these topics.
LL: You used a lot of narratives, which I think made it a lot more personal. Which is a way I think that really makes it more interesting for young people, or someone like me, who isn’t really a sports fan.
RR: I’m glad you found it very narrative-driven. When you’re writing a textbook, you don’t need personal stories, but if you want a teenager to pick it up, you need stories that will help make your point and be entertaining.
LL: I think that’s really the creative aspect of nonfiction, even in academia, is making it interesting, finding the right story, deciding what to take out, what to leave in. Your book—I mean, I read it in two sittings. My mind didn’t wander. And I think that’s a really challenging aspect of writing nonfiction. And people say, ‘well, you’re not making stuff up, you’re not creating a fantasy world. How hard can it be?’ But still, there is a lot of shaping in the nonfiction world.
So what’s your next thing going to be?
RR: I’m working on a young adult novel now, which is actually sport themed. The idea is that a group of girls challenge the boys’ basketball team to a match. So I’ve been working on that since we’ve been shut down and there’s less distraction. It’s fiction, but it’s nice because every now and then I get to slip in the stuff I know about gender. There’s a whole chapter in there about, well, are men really better at sports? And the girls are kind of thinking through that. Is it true? Could a girls’ team beat a boys’ team? Fiction is different. I was thinking as I was working on this young adult novel that fiction feels harder sometimes. Part of that maybe is practice, because I’ve written a lot more nonfiction than fiction.
LL: It’s definitely a different form of creativity. Thank you for speaking with me today!