When a vagina is not enough

Olympic organizers in Beijing have created a lab to test female athletes suspected of being males -- but how much does a Y chromosome prove?

Published July 28, 2008 2:50PM (EDT)

The New York Times reports that organizers of the Beijing Olympics have established a lab for testing female athletes suspected of being men. "Experts at the lab, located at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, will evaluate cases based on their external appearance and take blood samples to test hormones, genes and chromosomes, said Prof. Tian Qinjie of the college hospital, according to the Xinhua news agency."

Here's the problem: Chromosomal abnormalities may produce a "male" result for a person who is in all other respects female. According to the Intersex Society of North America's Web site, at least 30 genes have been found to influence sex, and certain ones can turn a person with a Y chromosome into a female or someone with two X chromosomes into a male -- "it is simply incorrect to think that you can tell a person's sex just looking at whether he or she has a Y chromosome." And such false assumptions can have devastating consequences for female athletes who fail the gender test, such as Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of her Asian Games silver medal in 2006. It's speculated that Soundarajan has androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition in which a person with a Y chromosome is unable to respond to masculinizing hormones. People with complete AIS develop female genitals and would have no unfair advantage over competitors with XX chromosomes, but would still register as chromosomally "male." By all accounts, Soundajaran was born and lived as a female and never suspected she had male genetic characteristics, much less deliberately set out to deceive officials, but that information didn't carry as much weight as the gender testing. In 2007, apparently depressed over her public humiliation and disqualification from further competition, she attempted suicide.

After decades of routine gender testing for women Olympians, the International Olympic Committee changed its rules in 1999 so that female athletes are tested only if they're suspected of being male. But so far, the tests have served to marginalize and punish women with genetic abnormalities, not to ferret out wily men who somehow manage to reach elite levels of competition without anyone noticing their penises. As Sam at Feministe puts it, "the tests are unreliable, invasive, and essentializing. Shame on the Olympics for even seriously considering something like this."

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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