An earlier version of this article first appeared in xtra.ca.
Hair above her upper lip. The deep timbre of her voice. A
muscular build. Her flatter-than average chest. A growing fixation on these
corporeal cues is replacing the cheers that first met teenaged South African
athlete Caster Semenya when she took the 800m gold medal at the world
championship in Berlin August 19.
Eighteen-year-old Semenya, who grew up in the village of Fairlee in South
Africa’s rural Limpopo province, has been forced to undergo "gender verification
testing" at the hands of a team that includes an endocrinologist,
gynecologist, internal-medicine specialist and a psychologist.
As a long-time member of the queer community, I’ve met a lot of women with deep
voices and/or facial hair. In fact, across most people I’ve met I’ve seen a
wide range of behaviour and self-presentation across the spectrum of culturally
defined "masculine" and "feminine" traits, regardless of
whether a person identified as a man or a woman. Or defined themselves in some
One of the competitors who lost to Semenya, sixth-place Elisa Piccione of
Italy, complained to media: "to me, she is not a woman." Those grapes
are worse than sour — they’re bitter. And they were only a first wave of a
bilious tide of commentary around the world from media sources and internet
pundits, ranging from cruel and predictable jokes to demands that the public be
allowed to examine her genitals.
Though the debate has been described as concerning fairness to the other female
competitors, it reveals much about what happens when the realities of people’s
lives butt up against the limits of our socially constructed two-gender-only
What about fairness to Semenya? If the jury in the midst of poking and prodding
her determines that she is intersexed, she may be stripped of her title by the
International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).
Earlier this month, Australian journalist Mike Hurst
released allegations about Ms Semenya’s body parts to the media, which may or
may not be accurate (the details of the IAAF’s investigations will not be
formally announced until November). Since then, the blogosphere has given rise
to a chorus of armchair experts on intersexuality offering diagnoses and
medical advice, generally contradicting one another.
The handling of questions surrounding Semenya’s sex has been
demeaning and manipulative. Johannesburg’s Mail and Guardian reported on Aug 18
that she had received gender testing and counseling in South Africa prior to
the Berlin race, and reported the next day that Athletics South Africa (ASA)
president Leonard Chuene admitted to lying to the public about the tests.
According to reports, ASA team doctor Harold Adams advised
pulling Semenya from the race, but this was not discussed with her directly.
One office told the Mail & Guardian that Team South Africa’s events manager
said “they couldn’t withdraw Semenya because they
needed a medal at all costs.”
Mandatory gender tests for women athletes were discontinued
many years ago because of they were deemed fundamentally demeaning. So there
may be other intersex athletes competing — often, intersexuality (much like
race, class or sexual orientation) is something that you cannot necessarily
So essentially, Semenya is being discriminated against because of her
non-gender-conforming appearance — and forced to prove whether she is
"entirely female." Watching the results of the Berlin 800m
competition, I’m most struck by the ways in which Semenya’s body is similar to
those of the other elite female running athletes — rather than the ways it is
Their bodies — tall, long-legged, muscular, very little to no breast tissue —
are very much alike. I point this out not to objectify these women — rather to
point out that while some could argue Semenya’s appearance is quite different
from the "average woman" (whatever that means), she and her peers are
not quite that disparate at all.
The IAAF’s fixation on Semenya’s biological sex obscures other, non-penalized
ways in which genetics may provide advantages to some people and not others.
"Top athletes in general have superior genetics that give them an
‘advantage’ over their competitors, whether that’s Michael Phelps’ insanely big
feet and double-jointed ankles, or Lance Armstrong’s long femur size,"
commented UK-based competitive cyclist Maryka Sennema in The Science of Sport,
a blog run by two prominent South African sports doctors.
And while the world of competitive sport may seem hyper-invested in the gender
binary, the rest of society has not progressed that much either. Around the
same time the Semenya controversy arose, conservative pundit Mark Steyn wrote
mockingly in Canadian magazine Maclean’s that "in terms of sexual
identity, we’re freer than almost any society in human history, at least in
terms of our official validation of our choice to ‘redefine’ ourselves in
defiance of biological and physical reality."
The right-wing Steyn is admittedly a clown, but he espouses a very common point
of view about the inviolability of two and only two genders, assigned at birth
and easily identifiable unless there is something "wrong."
This simple conception belies the findings of developmental geneticist Anne
Fausto-Sterling, who wrote back in 1993 in The Sciences that "biologically
speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending
on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least
five sexes — and perhaps even more."
The sports world needs to give some serious thought to how it handles natural
variation in gender — especially in the case that Semenya is deemed either
intersexed or male, despite her own self-identification as a woman. And in
lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans circles, this is a good opportunity to consider
how we understand and provide support to people — within and outside our
communities — who feel they are, or are perceived to be, gender non-conforming.
This can mean being better allies to trans and intersexed folks, but also
questioning the ways in which all queers can either benefit or suffer because
of our gender identity and self-presentation. After all, one of the key cases
fought by the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) last year
centred on Khadijah Farmer, a masculine-appearing lesbian who was thrown out of
a New York restaurant for using the women’s washroom. TLDEF won the case.
Caster Semenya should not be placed on trial — it’s our society’s outmoded
perspective on gender that’s due for an overhaul. That race for equality won’t
be won until we’re all free to safely cross the finish line together.