exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

falling foul of the line

by Jen at 12:46 pm on 20.08.2009 | 8 Comments
filed under: rant and rage, this sporting life

i watched caster semenya blow away the competition in the 800 metre world championships last night.

and then i watched the race commentators and the iaaf blow her personal dignity out of the water.

since bursting onto the scene last month, there has apparently been quiet speculation about semenya’s gender.  last night that quiet speculation became widespread international rumourmongering that semenya was one of a growing number of known intersex or transgendered atheletes.

gender verification has been carried out in international sport since the 1930s.  from its first crude beginnings, it has, fortunately become much more sophisticated (by comparison) – taking into account physiology, genetics, hormones and psychology.  it has also become much more socially and politically sensitive – transgendered individuals are allowed to compete in their newly-identified gender after a period of two years, and intersex individuals are also allowed to compete.

what hasn’t apparently become more sophisticated or sensitive is the media.  the fact that semenya has spent her whole life as a woman and identifies as a woman, has now been openly called into question, in cruel fashion – it seems as if reporters around the world now feel it is perfectly fair game to speculate on the state of this woman’s genitals.  it’s perfectly okay to discuss in print whether or not this woman “qualifies” as a woman.

for better or for worse, we live in a world where the vast majority of people line up nicely on either side of (what we like to imagine as the neatly binary) “man” “woman” divide.  by default, then, anyone who falls in between those two descriptive categories, is seen by society as unusual.  that doesn’t, however, mean we should allow people to treat them like freak shows.  and surely an organisation as familiar with this territory as the iaaf, could do much to pave the way in this area – rather than singling out those athletes people are whispering about behind their backs, why not establish baseline regulation and guidance for all athletes competing at an international level? determine people’s eligibility for competition before, rather than after? take measures to qualify all athletes, rather than just the gender-bending few?  gender testing was initially done away with in the late 90s, specifically because it is invasive and provides no clear answers.  so is that proposal an easy, cheap, or less controversial way to do it?  of course not – but in the current climate, it’s the only *fair* one.  after all, if you’re going to subject some people to humiliating and invasive screening, there’s no reason the same standards shouldn’t either be applied to all athletes across the board, or be ruled out entirely.  i can’t see anyway around it: either you err on the side of qualifying all, or you decide you will qualify none.  the iaaf said they wanted to deal with this matter “discreetly” – at which they failed spectacularly, with earth-shattering consequences for the woman in question.  so rather than discriminatorily pulling a select few behind the curtain based on scepticism and nasty mutterings, they could seek to implement a proportional and sensitive framework for decision-making before the fact, that applies to all equally, and does away with the tabloid-type talk and treatment of those athletes that “aren’t pretty”, (as a bbc commentator so disgustingly described semenya).

otherwise, (and this is the question which must be answered), why do it at all?  to strip those who don’t “qualify” as women/men of their achievements?  it may seem crude and wildly impractical to suggest that all athletes undergo some kind of process before they compete, but how much more barbaric is it to publically strip-search those individuals like semenya? because that’s what this amounts to.

this is an issue which will only become more common – as it should.  people of all genders and genetics must be allowed to compete in all arenas of athletics and daily life.  we need to identify a way forward for dealing with identity which is not based on “outing” the exceptions to the rule.

last night caster semenya managed to put the rumour and sensationalism behind her… and just be sensational.  it’s a shame the media couldn’t see past her gender, and view her for the true woman she showed herself to be.

1 person likes this post.


  • 1

    Comment by A Free Man

    21.08.2009 @ 01:24 am

    Thanks for this post. I don’t know anything about this stuff and it’s an interesting topic. Lots of questions, but you’ve got great links as well. Nicely done.

  • 2

    Comment by Jen

    21.08.2009 @ 06:24 am

    thanks chris. it’s an incredibly, incredibly complex issue. and of course, the idea of subjecting everyone to testing is just as gross in its own way – the idea that you can “determine” definitively what box to put someone in is just ridiculous. but the spectacle they’ve made out of this poor woman on what should be one of the happiest days of her life, is simply repulsive and heartbreaking. something has to change. society is lightyears behind, and doing away with gender labels is simply not going to happen – not now anyway.

    in the end, this is a human who has been humiliated on a world stage – something which was entirely avoidable.

  • 3

    Comment by Thomas Foolery

    21.08.2009 @ 11:50 am

    This situation may not have been handled well, but since we have exactly 2 categories of competition (male, female) in athletic events, it doesn’t seem at all ‘ridiculous’ to require that people compete in the correct one. The alternatives seem to be a) to do away with gender categories and have men and women compete against each other (fair?); or b) to make additional categories. As an layperson, in the current situation the question of choosing a category seems obvious: genetic testing of everyone (a person either has a Y chromosome or they don’t) which doesn’t have to be any more invasive than the drug testing they already do. It doesn’t seem like we have to get into lifestyle or identity questions; genetic women and genetic men have different body composition. The particulars of someone’s genitals or psyche shouldn’t matter — athletic performance will be most closely tied to genetics, won’t it? If Semenya is genetically male, is the status quo fair to the female athletes?

  • 4

    Comment by Jen

    21.08.2009 @ 15:43 pm

    i’m not suggesting we do away with the two categories of competition, because biology is not equal, and domination by males with more muscle mass would effectively eliminate women’s presence from most sporting categories.

    it isn’t actually as simple as X and Y. there are a whole host of factors which go into how people develop physically and mentally into a “woman” or a “man”. Genes, diet, hormones, environment, upbringing and other factors we’ve not yet even been able to scientifically quantify, all combine in a multitude of permutations to determine how someone expresses themselves (and how those are traits are physiologically and psychologically expressed) in gendered and sexual ways.

    just for one example, it is possible for women to actually have the XY genetic combo, but never even know it – live their whole lives as females. it’s called androgen insensitivity syndrome and if determinations were made solely on the gene combo, it would unfairly eliminate women who otherwise have no biologically conferred physiological advantage. there are lots of other intersex conditions which defy neat “man” “woman” physiological categorisations as well.

    genitals actually do not actually matter much – people of both XX and XY genetic origin can be born hermaphroditic – although they form part of the overall picture of an individual’s genetic and hormonal and physiological makeup. and as i mentioned above, transgendered people who’ve undergone sex-change are allowed to compete.

    psychologically? it matters a lot – a helluva a lot. think about caster – who, according to the reports, has always identified as a girl, always been treated as a girl, always been accepted as a girl. to suddenly have all that called into question is a complete mind-fuck. there are people all over the world who grow up with the knowledge that their body does not reflect the gender they identify with on the inside… but to suddenly be told that your body doesn’t match up to what you’ve always believed yourself to be? our gender is intricately bound with our personal identity from birth. so experiencing that kind of disconnect is the kind of thing that changes a person’s whole life.

    the most problematic part with how this has been handled is a) singling out people based on harsh and slanderous rumour or “suspicious” results in what can only be described as a discriminatory way for humiliation and b) what will they do if they decide her to be genetically “male” based on factors she herself had no awareness of? after putting her through all this public scrutiny and cruelty… are they really going to take away her medal?

    no. no, they’re not. they’ve done stuff like that before and been excoriated for it. in which case… what’s the point of this whole charade except to allow the world to gawk?

  • 5

    Comment by Thomas Foolery

    21.08.2009 @ 17:26 pm

    I think that in discussing the general subject, we should try not to overly complicate things or be too concerned about Semenya’s feelings about her identity. That sounds harsh, but consider the feelings of her competitors, also: What if Semenya has a good career as a female runner and “blows away the competition” for the next 10 years or so (thereby diminishing the athletic careers of everyone who runs against her, women who might otherwise have won their share of races)? Hypothetically, what if it turns out that she’s technically/genetically male? A whole generation of genuinely female runners would pass into obscurity. Surely we shouldn’t disregard fairness to save Semenya’s feelings merely because she believes she’s female. People often have lots of incorrect beliefs about themselves. Most obviously, we know that the gender of someone’s mind and the gender of their body do not always agree. But, since we’re talking about physical competition, it makes sense to concentrate on the body.

    If I were suddenly told I had female chromosomes, I’m sure that would be a helluva shock, but would it be more emotionally traumatic than, say, finding out I had cancer? I actually doubt it.

    In an unusual case (such as this might be) nobody would be trying to tell athletes whether they should *live* as men or women, merely (and ideally, nonjudgementally) which race they should be running in based on their chromosomes. Again, it might be harsh, but more harsh than all the accusations and speculation? More invasive than all these other tests they’re talking about? Of course the boundary lines between genders are sometimes fuzzy, and other things like hormones can play very important roles, but since there are 2 athletics categories, it seems to make sense to have a relatively non-invasive, unambiguous binary test, such as chromosome type.

  • 6

    Comment by Jen

    22.08.2009 @ 18:58 pm

    that’s the problem. even if you set aside the psychological impact of gender, none of this is non-invasive, unambiguous, or binary. wishing won’t make it so. as someone i read said the other day, “there’s no simple way to identify males and females. sports requires that we do, but biology doesn’t care. biology is messy.”

    the ny times ran an article today which outlines it all much better than i can (and agrees with my conclusion).

  • 7

    Comment by Thomas Foolery

    22.08.2009 @ 23:02 pm

    So how about having a primary, binary test (chromosomes) that will instantly and easily classify 99% of athletes, and then in the case where this produces an unexpected or illogical answer, having a specific list of scientific and medical exceptions that IAAF doctors list as standards? According to your article these should be medically verifiable and could perhaps be done with a simple blood test or swab: e.g. 1. SRY exception. 2. non-SRY exception 3. Androgen Insensitivity exception, etc. Ultimately if there’s a clear, scientific standard, and an athlete can hold up a medical certificate that most doctors and geneticists will vouch for, the problem is effectively solved.

    I think the tricky part is where you start to take psychology and/or identity into account. As subjective questions, they will generate the kind of icky controversy you’re dismayed about here. When it comes to these highest levels of competition, the mere fact that I believe I’m a man (and a very handsome, macho one at that) shouldn’t trump any medical evidence to the contrary.

  • 8

    Comment by Jen

    25.08.2009 @ 18:22 pm

    again, it’s not that simple. because then what about transsexuals (who, under current rules are allowed to compete in their new gender, regardless of what their chromasomes say)? they’re already taking self-ascribed identity into account in those instances… why not semenya?

    i mean, we’ve been throwing around gender and sex in this discussion as if they’re interchangable, when in fact, they’re not. as can be seen from semenya, how you view yourself often has nothing to do with how others view you – how many people looked at her and had no problem stating with certainty “she’s a man”? so even if science can compartmentalise, society and self often can’t – and there has to be some allowance that those elements are not always black and white. thus, under existing rules, people originally born as men are now competing as women (and potentially vice-versa), even though the *science* says they belong in the other category.

    but if they *look* like women and *act* like women, we’re somehow more comfortable with that than with someone like semenya? who (as far as we know) is genetically a female, but “looks like a man”?

    my whole point (and i do have one) is that while there are no easy answers, they need to come up with some sort of sensible guidance which is non-discriminatory, and which everyone is party to in advance. they can then judge for themselves if they are willing to compete under the rules and categories in which they are eligible, and such decisions will have been transparent and up-front.

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