She's a "man"... maybe

Is a masculine appearance adequate grounds for gender testing world champion runner Caster Semenya?


Judy Berman
August 20, 2009 10:21PM (UTC)

Yesterday should have been the happiest day of Caster Semenya's life. The 18-year-old South African student, who rose quickly from obscurity to become one of her country's greatest runners, won a gold medal in the 800-meter World Championships. But instead of pure glory, her victory was mixed with scandal and embarrassment: You see, the International Association of Athletic Federations, responding to rumors that she is male, ordered Semenya to undergo gender testing, despite South Africa's athletic federation's insistence that it is "completely sure" she is female. As those of us who follow this kind of thing know by now, that invasive process isn't a brief matter of asking the lady to strip and giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." The results of the in-depth examination won't be back for a few weeks.

But the media isn't wasting time speculating about them. Since the IAAF made its announcement, publications have been devoting far more headline space to doubts about Semenya's sex than to her win. And it looks like the testing -- and the ubiquitous coverage it's prompted -- is adding insult to lifelong injury. "Friends and relatives say Semenya has been teased for much of her teenage life about her masculine appearance and has grown used to the whispers and sniggers," says an article in the Telegraph. "When she was recently prevented from entering the ladies' toilets at a petrol station in Cape Town, she apparently laughed and offered to take her pants off to show the petrol attendants she was no man." The Telegraph also reports that no one seemed to be interested in seriously challenging Semenya's sex before her stellar stint at African Junior Championships. Apparently, "her improvement was highly unusual for such a young woman." So ... she's a quick study with a boyish build. Cue international scandal!

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Of course, Athletics South Africa is none too pleased with the way the IAAF handled Semenya's case. The Guardian reports that the organization's president, Leonard Chuene, is criticizing the IAAF for subjecting the athlete to public scrutiny when they could have easily kept the gender testing under wraps until the results became available. "I am not going to let that girl be humiliated in the manner that she was humiliated because she has not committed a crime whatsoever. Her crime was to be born the way she is born," said Chuene. "And now people are not happy, and on that basis she is isolated like a leper, like she has got a disease that will affect other people." So why did the IAAF choose to handle Semenya's situation so publicly, anyway? Georgina Turner puzzles it out in a separate Guardian article:

Why, when those who test positively for drugs are often protected from media attention until months after competitions, did the IAAF opt to reveal the altogether more personal testing undergone by Semenya before the results were even known? And when she still had to walk out at the Olympic stadium and compete in the final? The timing suggests it needed to be seen to be doing something in response to stage whispers about Semenya's physique, and opted to save its own face rather than protect a young athlete from the unwanted attention of the world's media.

So instead of bearing the brunt of the rumor mill themselves, the IAAF decided to foist the controversy onto the 18-year-old girl herself. Classy! Meanwhile, I'm enjoying Semenya's response. Although she hasn't given a formal interview about the allegations, she told news reporters after the race, "I don't give a damn about it."

Over at Feministing, Courtney reminds us that sex isn't always binary, so attempts to find out whether Semenya is a "man" or a "woman" may prove futile. She cites the statistic that "every year more than 65,000 children are born who aren't obviously either boys or girls" and quotes Alice Dreger, a bioethics and medical humanities professor at Northwestern, whose was interview with the New York Times points to the problems inherent in declaring competitors with complicated genotypes "male" or "female." "At the end of the day," she tells the paper, the IAAF is "going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision. And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, 'Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.' "

The Semenya controversy, for me, raises three entirely distinct questions: 1. Are looking "like a man" and excelling in your sport adequate grounds for gender testing? 2. Do athletes have a right to privacy before the results of any necessary tests (be they sex- or drug-related) are revealed? 3. Given the complexity of biological sex, does it make sense to continue subjecting women athletes to gender testing? I'm going with "no" to 1 and 3, and "yes" to 2. But I'm interested to hear how Broadsheet readers would answer the same complicated questions.


Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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