Monday, January 4, 2010 Leave a comment
Originally published August 27, 2009.
She left the competition in the dust during the 800 meter dash at the Athletics World Championships in Berlin last week. Her obvious skill, which made itself known at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games and the 2009 African Junior Championships, was awarded … with an order for a comprehensive and degrading sex test.
Supporters of Caster Semenya are calling the actions of the International Association of Athletics Federations sexist, racist, and downright appalling.
Many aspects of the aftermath have frustrated me, Semenya’s shameful treatment being far from least. But one thing in particular seems to be the source of my other aggravations: the massive public confusion surrounding the concept of gender.
Every piece I’ve looked at that discusses the Semenya controversy uses “male” and “man” interchangeably, asking in headlines whether “she” is really a “he.”
However, that’s not really the question at hand. What the IAAF wants to know is whether Semenya is female. So if Caster Semenya believes she’s a woman, presents herself as a woman, then she is indeed a woman.
Many people don’t realize there is a huge difference between being female and being a woman—or being male and being a man, for that matter. Female and male are biological terms that relate to the possession of XX and XY chromosomes, but also to phenotypic sex expression, including “the plumbing.”
Gender, on the other hand, is a social construction—a set of behavioral “norms” dictated by members of a society. As much as people will argue otherwise, gender isn’t tied to genitals.
The forced and binary gendering of children, however, is another topic for another time. What does all this have to do with Caster Semenya and her gold medal?
Well, she can still be a woman while being genetically male.
Results from tests prior to Semenya’s win claimed that her testosterone level was three times higher than the average female. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome could explain the issue, as the condition renders the body resistant to androgens (male sex hormones containing testosterone) while overproducing them in an effort to make them work on the body the way they should.
Plus, the testes never drop, making the genitals look more like a vagina instead of a penis—which is unfortunately still considered a criterion for womanhood by most, and increases the likelihood that her parents have raised her as a woman since birth.
AIS isn’t the only possibility, either.
A number of causes exist that result in intersex births. Beyond that, trans individuals who have successfully undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy would also manifest a physically different appearance from their genetic sex.
The outcome and aftermath of Semenya’s test impacts more people than just her. It is potentially a landmark in the struggle for trans women, intersex women, and those who are gender-fluid to participate in women’s athletics.
It’s unlikely that organizations like the IAAF would allow a trans woman to compete in male sports based on her genetic sex. And it would be disgusting to return to the days of mandatory sex tests for female (and only female) athletic events, because it does not really level the playing field to ensure no males participate. If Caster Semenya is found to be genetically male, her medal will not be stripped from her, but her dignity and her future opportunities to compete will be.
She would no longer be able to run against females because people would claim she has a physical advantage. And she certainly could not race against males because of societal stigma generated by her gender identity as a woman.
No, leveling the playing field will be forced to wait until competitive sports—and society—learn to separate sex from gender.
Chelsea is a fifth year senior in LAS.