Thursday, September 10, 2009

The real gender test

by Molly Borowitz

Earlier this summer, South African 800-meter champion Caster Semenya made world headlines after the International Association of Athletics Federations accidentally leaked that she would be required to take a gender test in order to maintain her gold medal in the women’s race. While many people—especially South Africans—expressed outrage at the supposed slanders against Semenya’s womanhood, I have to confess that I found their fury rather misplaced. During pre-championship testing, Semenya’s testosterone levels were fully triple the normal amount for women, and the IAAF in fact requested the gender test before she ever stepped foot on the Berlin track. If you ask me (not that anyone did), the greater problems were:

1) if the IAAF was suspicious that Semenya might not really be eligible to compete in the women’s race, why did they let her? Why force her to endure the frustration and disappointment of having her success stripped away?

2) for such a large organization, the IAAF really needs to get its act together. Semenya’s story got out because someone sent an email to the wrong person. Come on.

3) it’s utterly ridiculous that they called that test a “gender” test. The IAAF has absolutely no business researching whether or not Semenya conforms to the West’s binary division of gender norms—i.e., whether she wears dresses, plays with dolls, and prefers pink to blue. No, they were investigating her SEX—her genitalia and her biochemistry—which are relevant to her sports performance. Her gender is completely beside the point.

As such, I initially found Semenya’s reaction to the IAAF’s blunder (and misnomer) quite inspiring. She and her family passionately asserted that her appearance and behavior should have no relevance to her sex; just because she looked, acted, or dressed rather like a boy didn’t at all mean that she was male. Their argument became even stronger when Semenya’s birth certificate—which declares her to be female—was released as evidence. Intentionally or unintentionally, she and her family were making a really powerful statement about the crucial differences between “sex” and “gender,” and providing an excellent illustration of why the two terms are not interchangeable. Just recently, however, the Semenya family’s admirable attempts to end the tyranny that is our automatic association between the female sex and the feminine gender hit a pretty serious wall.

Caster got a makeover.

The 18-year-old sprinter posed for South Africa’s You magazine in various outfits composed of sequins, dresses, and stilettos. During the shoot, she told her interviewers that “I'd like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance…I've never bought my own clothes, my mum buys them for me, but now that I know I can look like this I'd like to dress like this more often.” Such a concession to gender stereotypes really flies in the face of her former defiance, her willingness to be a little different—especially in the sprinting world, where women often wear jewelry and makeup when they compete. Until this makeover, Semenya had been living proof that being a girl and being girly are not the same thing.

I want to be proud of Semenya’s professed self-affirmation—“I am who I am and I am proud of myself,” “God made me the way I am and I accept myself”—but this magazine makeover tells a rather different story, one steeped more in shame than in self-acceptance. The IAAF has permitted her to keep her gold medal, but I wonder whether Semenya’s public attempts to appear more stereotypically feminine don’t constitute a different kind of gender test—one which she might have failed.


At September 11, 2009 at 1:13 PM , Anonymous Biology rules all said...

Caster Semenya, the person who won a gold medal in the woman’s 800-meter world championship, has testes (producing testosterone), but no ovaries (the organ which makes eggs and estrogen) or womb. The MSM articles are calling Caster a “hermaphrodite,” but I say Caster is a man with undescended testes and no penis. I mean he has testosterone and sperm (in those testes), but no eggs or estrogen.

I hope that people who were complaining about how it’s not fair that “she” was being subject to these tests will apologize now that it turns out Caster is really a man.

At September 11, 2009 at 1:13 PM , Anonymous cont'd said...

I must say however that I feel bad for Semenya. Imagine finding out this way that you're really a man, and infertile, too. I agree that (s)he totally looks like a man.

At September 11, 2009 at 4:15 PM , Anonymous Molly Borowitz said...

@Biology rules all:

Thanks so much for your comment. As I understand it, the IAAF hasn't officially released the results of Caster's test, but it is considered likely that she is an intersex individual:

I couldn't agree with you more that it's a devastating situation for the athlete and her family, but also that her biological makeup does and should affect her ability to compete in women's sports. As BBC correspondent Gordon Farquhar says, "The IAAF has to weigh the interest of the athlete, an apparently innocent victim in this, with its responsibility to ensure fair competition."

Farquhar also mentions that Semenya's "condition" may be "treatable," eventually enabling her to return to competition. I don't know about you, but I find that comment rather upsetting, and certainly worthy of an entirely new conversation about biological self-identification and its relationship to the gender binary.

At September 11, 2009 at 8:51 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Biology rules all:
She's not "really" a man. She's not a "she" and she's not a (s)he and she's not a he. You don't get to define her as a man based on some arbitrary line you've made up between "man" and "woman." She's intersex, and she identifies as a woman. She is an intersex woman.

I do agree with you that this must be an incredibly traumatic time for her and her family. It also could conceivably put her in danger. The IAAF should be ashamed, and should find whoever leaked those test results (or fake test results, if it turns out to be false) and fire them immediately.

At September 12, 2009 at 12:17 PM , Anonymous AC said...

"It also could conceivably put her in danger"

Would you like to defend this statement, which seems like a radical overreaction by an ideologue with no grounding in real life?

At September 17, 2009 at 1:40 PM , Anonymous LSG said...

Yes, I do subscribe to the radical ideology that people shouldn't be killed for their gender expression, or the formation of their genitals.

If you want evidence that people are endangered by not conforming to the sex and gender dichotomy much of society believes in, a quick google of "trans woman murdered" should provide many anecdotal stories. Questioning Transphobia points to worldwide violence against trans people: ( I realize that Semenya is not a trans woman, but she faces a lot of the same misgendering, fear, and hate faced by trans women and trans men, so I do think she could potentially be the target of the same kind of violence they face. If you really doubt that trans, intersex, genderqueer, ect. people are at much higher risk of being the subject of hate crimes, evidence is all too easy to find.

If you're looking for evidence specific to Semenya, the fact that she's gone into hiding is one indication she's in danger, not to mention the vitriol and disgust poured out in the comments on almost every story concerning her. Of course, I have no evidence that lots of people frothing at the mouth on the internet means any one of those people could do her physical violence, but it certainly seems to be evidence that many people wish her ill.

And frankly, hate and vitriol unaccompanied by "real" violence still take a serious toll -- Semenya is not only reportedly been "shattered" by the news, she was placed on suicide watch.

Is that "real life" enough for you?


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