Thursday, August 20, 2009

Runner Semenya forced to take gender-verification test

by Malavika Balachandran

South African runner Caster Semenya, winner of a gold medal in the 800 meter race yesterday in Berlin, is now under scrutiny as many believe she is a man. In fact, she is undergoing a gender-verification test to make sure she is a woman, or she will be disqualified from the race. Officials believe she is intersex (having female genitalia but male chromosomes). Citing her speed, lack of breasts, and "manly" facial features, officials have called for gender-verification test, which according to CNN will consist of "examination by a gynecologist to see what her genitals look like" and "an ultrasound to see if she has all the normal female reproductive organs." Most athletes have an athletic build and consequently possess small breasts. Semenya is competing in a race, not a beauty pageant. She should not be judged for having facial hair or a square jaw.

The media frenzy is causing 18-year-old to endure international humiliation, regardless of whether she is actually intersex. Semenya is only one of many female athletes who face this scrutiny. The degradation has caused not only gender confusion for these women, but severe depression. Santhi Soundarajan, another runner, was stripped of her medal in 2006 after "failing" a gender test and later attempted suicide. Officials have done nothing to protect Semenya's privacy and have openly discussed her "manliness."

Following a series of tests conducted by a vast array of doctors - gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychiatrists, and more - officials will decide if Semenya is a "real woman" and thus deserving of her honor. But the only reality is that if she has any significant hormonal imbalance or chromosome abnormality, officials will likely disqualify her and say she is not a woman. Yet no one questions male athletes' masculinity, and most probably think that it is unlikely a good male athlete has any feminine characteristics. But far too often, exceptional female athletes face skepticism about their femininity, and this incident has reignited the debate about what, in the world of sports, gender should mean.


At August 21, 2009 at 1:33 PM , Anonymous Chris said...

I feel bad for her, she can't help her condition and she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of.

At August 25, 2009 at 6:37 AM , Blogger Lady A said...

beyond it being a question of feeling bad for her, the IAFF or whatever they are called is grossly intruding on her privacy. She was 2 measly seconds faster than the others, and because she looks the way she looks, her gender is being questioned? Why is no one giving Usain Bolt a hard time about his record breaking speed? I mean the man is inhuman, but I guess because he's a dude there's no reason to question his ability, right?

This story points at the fact that gender as we understand it is not always black or white (perhaps more appropriately XX or XY). Surely her abilities cannot be discarded because she doesn't fit into the standard category of what a woman is supposed to be. It's even more annoying to me that we are going to the level of chromosomes to insist that she is not a "normal" woman, when there are a significant number of men and women in this world who do not fit into our nicely packaged XX / XY gender categories.

Beyond what gender should mean in the world of sports, I think we should also look critically at what gender should mean, period. To me it seems pretty obvious that we cannot maintain a normalized definition of gender as we work with it today.

At August 25, 2009 at 9:07 PM , Anonymous BradyB said...

There are very few (if any, I searched for 10 minutes and couldn't find one) world track records where women hold a lower time than men. In the 800 M for example, the men's record is a full 12 seconds (9%) faster. Clearly gender plays a large role in the capacity to generate strength and speed.

If Semenya is indeed an intersex individual, then that means she has an incredible anabolic advantage over her competition. This seems to be the fairest way to go about the situation given that other athletes are involved. I doubt you would concede that male athletes ought to be allowed to use steroids, and yet this women's genetic make-up may have provided her with them naturally.

This isn't about sexism; it is about fairness to all the athletes involved.

At August 26, 2009 at 12:49 AM , Anonymous Diana D said...

This sport, like most other professional sports, is set up so that women compete against women, and men against men. If you are concerned about the ethics of gender segregation in athletics, that is a great debate to explore, but it is a separate issue altogether.

As it is currently calibrated, however, it is perfectly legitimate to investigate her chromosomes, and it is perfectly legitimate to do so based on her looks. Appearances and physical traits are a large part of how we identify masculine and feminine, because the chromosomes involved in the scientific identifications result in certain physical characteristics, like musculature and other things that make a BIG difference in organized sports (2 seconds is a big margin when we're talking about running 800 meters, btw). If we are supposed to accept the changes that people who identify as a gender they are not born with make to their bodies to become more like the gender idea they have of themselves as intellectually and morally acceptable, we must also accept that there is legitimacy in the differences between the classifications of male, female, and everything between (and beyond?).

Her abilities are extraordinary whatever the outcome of the test, and no one can doubt that. Additionally, no stigma should be brought upon her (there are some pretty crass people out there saying some pretty awful things, but, again, separate issue). And this is a fine time to look at idiocy in journalism and newscasting. Let's save the stigma for steroid-using major league baseball players, PLEASE, since they are in fact cheating. But it is totally reasonable to do the test to determine whether her abilities should be getting compared to the abilities of the women she has been competing against as a peer. It may be that she is peerless.

At August 30, 2009 at 1:23 PM , Anonymous Brenda said...

Anyone who has a natural ability to run, a natural physical composition to be athletic, has a "genetic advantage". The argument that she has too strong of a "natural advantage" is contradictory, because the athleticism is not just about hard work; no one has attempted to disqualify Michael Phelps for having long arms and short legs, or for allegedly having Marfan's syndrome, which is also a chromosomal "abnormality".

When a woman runs faster than she's supposed to, she might not be a woman! If she has a natural ability to run, why does that make her no longer a woman?

At August 30, 2009 at 4:01 PM , Anonymous Brenda said...

I apologize that my last paragraph is unclear. What I meant was that as soon as a woman runs faster than she's supposed to, her femininity is called into question, which is exactly why the question of perceived gender is not a separate issue from athleticism at all. We should ask ourselves how we define gender in relation to athleticism and why her femininity is being called into question at all. What cultural values make it possible for us to publicly humiliate her and discredit her hard work and her career?

At September 11, 2009 at 9:25 AM , Anonymous ChristyC said...

I think this is ridiculous, we live in a society that has been brainwashed by media and sex. If she looked like Venus or Serena, she'd be all over the covers of every magazine. A hormone imbalance can disqualify her...Hormones shift frequently, so I hope they aren't basing that off of just one test. No matter the results this poor girls life has been majorly affected by the standards we push onto young women today. If she has female genitals, but something else is wrong; I still say that makes her a woman and is a private matter, not something that should be drug out to the public to humilate her. For Gods sake! What happened to humanity?!


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