“Gender Verification in Sports:” We All Have a Stake in Caster Semenya’s Medal


Katherine Franke’s article was originally published at the Gender and Sexuality Law Blog of Columbia University Law School.

As many will recall, the gold medal performance in the 800 meter track competition by Caster
Semenya, a South African athlete, last month at the Berlin World
Championships, sparked a “sex panic” when some observers questioned
Semenya’s “real” sex. 

Well, things have turned a troubling corner in
this matter this week.  An Australian newspaper reported today that Semenya’s “gender verification” test results revealed that she failed the female sex test.  
That is to say, the results are reported to show that her body does not
fall within the prescribed definition of a woman for competitive
international sports.

I put the issue this way for a reason – failed the female sex test - because the International Association of Athletics Federations’s (IAAF) gender verification policy
applies only to women’s events.   Their testing is not designed to
determine an athlete’s “real” sex, but rather seeks to discover whether
a competitor such as Semenya is “enjoying the benefits of natural
testosterone predominance normally seen in a male.”   In essence, to
pass the test the competitor must show “female levels of testosterone” (my term).

Mind you, not all athletes in women’s track meets have their testosterone levels tested.  The
IAAF ceased routine gender verification testing in its events in 1991,
and now forces a competitor to undergo such testing only when a
challenge is brought by another competitor or a ‘suspicion’ is raised as to an athletes’ gender“. 

In this case, Semenya looked “too masculine” and a suspicion was
raised.  She tried to fix this problem last week when she underwent a
makeover to “feminize” her look and posed as a covergirl for South
Africa’s You Magazine.  But this performance came too late.  Suspicions had already been raised.

In the end, the nub of the matter, really, was that she didn’t run
like a girl – she ran too fast to be a real female.  It would have
been highly unlikely that “gender verification testing” would have been
ordered if she’d finished with the back of the pack.  In this sense,
Semenya shares something with Oscar Pistorius who, aided by two prosthetic legs, runs too fast to be human and was disqualified by the IAAF from competing in the Olympics.

Castor Semenya has reportedly gone into hiding now that the results
of her “gender verification test” have been made public.  Her athletic
career has likely ended (unless she is willing to undergo transgender
surgery, in which case, ironically, the IAAF will allow her to compete)
and the public humiliation and ridicule she may suffer for being an
“hermaphrodite” and not a “real woman” are likely to be crushing. 
Recall that when Santhi Soundarajan underwent a similar public inquisition several years ago she attempted suicide.

We would be all well advised to pull Donna Haraway’s Cyborg
Manifesto off the shelf for a re-read.  Haraway’s groundbreaking
deployment of the “cyborg” challenged naturalist and essentialist
notions of “real” women and “real” men by exposing the ways that things
considered natural, like human bodies, are not, but are constructed by
our ideas about them.  These legally and culturally enforced notions of
normality are enforced even in a case such as Semenya’s whose body and
capacities are absolutely part of the natural variation of the species,
but who is rendered unnatural and abnormal by virtue of a test that
arbitrarily locates her outside the domain of “real women”.

To those of you who say: “I don’t think it’s fair that someone with
such high testosterone levels be allowed to compete in the women’s
track events.  What’s to stop men from competing in these events and
winning all of them?”  I have the following answer: Then don’t call
them women’s and men’s events, define the events by testosterone levels
– those with levels up to some ceiling run in one event, those with
higher levels run in another event.  Collapsing “female” and “male”
into testosterone levels is both bad science and bad social policy. 
Sexual categories are, after all, social and cultural categories, not
biological ones.

We
all have a stake in Caster Semenya’s ongoing treatment.  That
suspicions about how she looks can lead to having her identity as a
“real” woman publically revoked communicates a clear message to all of
us who consider ourselves female:  Don’t talk too loud, don’t throw a
ball too well, and don’t look too comportable in pants or walk with a
“masculine gate.”   And whatever you do, don’t look too triumphant when
you run really fast.  The gender police are out there looking for you.

One last thing: for accurate information on the definitions of,
incidence of, and “treatments” for a range of intersex conditions, go
to the Intersex Society of North America.

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  • shawn-syms

    I’m not sure I agree when you say that "she tried to fix this problem last week when she underwent a makeover" — none of us will know the machinations behind the scenes that led up to that photo shoot, but my understanding for several accounts is that Ms Semenya was resistant to being dolled up, rather than engaging in a strategic exercise. Otherwise, I agree with and appreciate the concerns that you raise. I talked a bit more about the issues in "Stop Policing Caster Semenya’s Gender": http://bit.ly/8lqfG

  • zoebrain

    From someone who knows about the issues:

    Hi Zoe,
    After reading the Daily Telegraph of London, I read some of the 299 comments and per usual everybody has an opinion about something they know nothing about. All speculative! As a Urologist, who lectures on this very subject to medical doctors, let me tell you what I think I know from reading the AP from Pretoria, SA. Caster Semenya has a probable genetic Disorder of Sexual Development known as Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, probably Grade 5 or 6, where the external genitalia are female-like and the internal genitalia are vestigial testes, which produce Testosterone and Estrogen. I say probable because we cannot know if she has any ovarian tissue mixed with the testis tissue until these vestigial organs are examined under the microscope by a pathologist. This will probably never happen, unless it is presented to her as a condition for receiving female hormones. At this moment everyone is assuming she is an XY woman. Now somebody said she had three times the normal female Testosterone level, which according to this one lab gives her less than their normal male values. Now every lab has its own normal values and we have not seen any numbers. So here are the values from just one lab, not her testing lab.
    http://www.bloodindex.org/normal_laboratory_values.php

    Determination Normal Reference Value
    Testosterone: Conventional units SI units

    Female 6–86 ng/dl 0.21–3 nmol/L

    Male 270–1070 ng/dl 9.3–37 nmol/L

    But it doesn’t matter what her serum Total or Free Testosterone is because the definition of PAIS implies that the cells which receive T cannot utilize it because their Androgen Receptors will not bind the T effectively. That’s why she has female external genitalia at birth.

    Interestingly the research in this area is so complete that the Chromosomal mutation on the Androgen Receptor can be identified. Usually these women and I say women, because that is how they have been raised and gender identify as female, are diagnosed in their teens because they cannot menstruate or conceive. Now in truth I know no more about her physical condition than what I read in the newspapers. Is the London Daily Telegraph a tabloid or the cousin to the New York Daily News? Poor Girl !!!!

  • cmarie

    Katherine, I’d ask you to imagine your own daughter trains for years to be an Olympic athlete. She makes enormous sacrifices year after year to put all her time and effort into training. When she finally competes she comes in second to someone who, it turns out naturally produces testosterone in levels dramatically higher than women generally do. If your daughter or any of the other competitors took medications to achieve these levels of testosterone she/they would be disqualified but the individual she lost to produces it naturally. I think you would recognize how unfair this would be to your daughter and the other competitors. I feel sorry for Semenya but if female athletes are expected to compete against hermaphrodites I’m afraid many of them will become understandably discouraged.

  • zoebrain

    But supposing it was your daughter who was tested, and found to have 5% of her cells 46xy? Not enough to have any effect, but enough for her to be Intersexed rather than "fully female"? Enough for the others to cry "foul" even though they may be the same, if they’ve not been tested?
    "Hermaphrodite" by the way is deprecated. The way "Negro" is deprecated. It’s scientifically inaccurate too, as this teenage girl is a woman with unusual glands, rather than someone who’s neither male nor female.
    Have you had a karyotype recently? How do you know that you’re a "woman" and not someone who’s 46XY like men. Just because you’ve given birth doesn’t mean you’re not one of "them". The ones you’d exclude as not being human females.
    A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis. – J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Jan;93(1):182-9.
    I say "them", but I should really say "us". I’m Intersexed too. There’s more of us than you think.

  • zoebrain

    cmarie – I’ve quoted an expert on the subject who says that she’s probably not advantaged. Certainly she isn’t if she has high-grade PAIS, the almost complete AIS that results in female genitalia.
    The IOC doesn’t do these kinds of tests any more because of that. And here’s what the IAAA (International Amateur Athletic Association) says in their policy:

    (The crux of the matter is that the athlete should not be enjoying the benefits of natural testosterone predominance normally seen in a male)
    6. Conditions that should be allowed:- Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete – previously called testicular feminization);- Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoid malignancy);- Turner’s syndrome.
    (b) Those conditions that may accord some advantages but nevertheless acceptable:- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia;- Androgen producing tumors;- Anovulatory androgen excess (polycystic ovary syndrome).

    Now since she has no advantage from her T levels – they may even be less than yours, effectively – the only reason for banning her would be because she’s unusual. Not advantaged in any way.
    There’s a word for that. For persecuting someone simply because they’re not like you. Are you saying that she should be banned simply because others are bigots, and might not want to race against a "negress", a "jewess", or someone who’s Intersexed – a "hermaphrodite"? Does this teenage girl not have at least equal rights to consideration as they do?
    I can’t be objective, as I’m Intersexed myself. Female, but with a short, stocky build. Genetically disadvantaged compared with those who have longer legs, and smaller ribcages. Perhaps there should be a height restriction, so people like me can race competitively.
    Where do you draw the line? The IAAA has found a reasonable formula – The crux of the matter is that the athlete should not be enjoying the benefits of natural testosterone predominance normally seen in a male. Are you saying that they’re wrong?