Just how many experts does it take to assign someone a gender?
The female South African winner of the 800m race at track and field
world championships in Berlin has been asked to prove that she is a
woman, the Guardian reports. And to prove herself female, she must submit to and pass a battery of tests:
Nick Davies, a spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)…described the tests necessary to determine the gender of an
athlete as "an extremely complex procedure" involving medics,
scientists, gynaecologists and psychologists, the outcome of which is
not expected for several weeks.
Caster Semenya, 18, had never competed outside of Africa when she logged this year’s best time. Her youth and her relative lack of experience led officials to question her gender.
While Semenya herself has not commented on the investigation, her father, Jacob, said: “I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman, and I can repeat that a million times” (via the New York Times).
The Times coverage of the story underscores how many different factors play into sex determination. Genes, hormones and genitalia can align in ways other than strictly "male" or "female," the Times explains:
Complicated cases are common. For example, a disorder known as
congenital adrenal hyperplasia gives women excess testosterone from a
source other than the testes — the adrenal glands. In mild cases,
genitals may appear normal and often no one suspects the problem. Women
with the disorder are allowed to compete as females…
Then there is a list of rare genetic disorders that can
confuse sexual identity. Some genetic males, for example, have
mutations in a gene needed to form testes. Although they look like
women, genetically they are men, with an X chromosome and a Y
Will this story force us to examine just how constructed our definition of gender actually is? Or will we keep telling ourselves it’s just one percent of the population that’s “abnormal”?