Stop Policing Caster Semenya’s Gender

An earlier version of this article first appeared in

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
other way.

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
observe casually).

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.

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  • pollik

    Thank you. :-)

  • derekp

    This still doesn’t answer the fundamental question. If sports are going to be segregated by gender, then how should they be segregated? Should it be an objective standard based on genetics, biology, or physiology? With all the ruckus people have been raising with this method, such as this article’s thesis, that seems to be a non-option to many GLBTQAS people. Should it be a subjective standard such as you are whatever gender you self identify with? That could bring a whole host of problems as well. Anyone can offer criticism, but real genius shows itself in innovative solutions.

  • shawn-syms

    Thanks for your comment, Derek. I don’t have all the answers but I’m happy to be a part of the conversation, and my key goal here was to promote the idea that fairness for intersexed people (not just so-called "normal" men and women) will need to be considered as part of any solution.


    I also wanted to highlight that the attention directed at Ms Semenya is based in huge part upon her appearance. Intersexuality may or may not confer athletic advantages, and there is no confirmation about this either way in her case. But not all intersex athletes have been forced through this crucible, especially if their gender presentation doesn’t arouse suspicion.


    I’m sympathetic to your desire for a solution, and I get your point that there is a difference between objective and subjective standards. But I’m not sure there is agreement as to what the "problem" even is.


    Further, I don’t think there is even a consensus that male/female sex segregation in sport is viable. For one look at this point of view, check out Dave Zirin & Sherry Wolf’s writings in The Nation. For another point of view that is very sensitive to Ms Semenya’s situation but still believes in the importance of "male" and "female" categories in sports, see the Science of Sport blog by a pair of sports medicine doctors.


    Clearly, lots more discussion needs to happen, and hopefully the rest of it will not involve the absolute privacy violations that have happened in this case.

  • shawn-syms

    When I said "Intersexuality may or may not confer athletic advantages," I wished to point out that there are a wide array of intersex conditions; some may confer athletic advantage, some may confer disadvantage, others may be neutral.