Today the story of Caster Semenya, the South-African sprinter who’s been at the center of a gender controversy since her surprising win at the World Athletics Championships, has taken a heart-wrenching turn. After doubts emerged that Semenya was really a woman – prompted by her ambiguous appearance, and tests showing elevated testosterone levels -- she was tested (possibly without her consent) by the IAAF. Now the results of her gender testing have leaked, and, if the reports are to be believed, they show that she is, in fact, biologically intersex.
According to the British Times, a source close to the investigation claims the testing has revealed that "the 18-year-old had internal testes and no womb or ovaries." This has led some media outlets to call her a “hermaphrodite” (and some even more inaccurately calling her “a woman … and a man”), but the truth is probably considerably more complicated. The term hermaphrodite (some scientists prefer the more accurate term “ovotesticular disorders of sexual development”) refers to people who have both ovarian and testicular tissue. If it’s true that Semenya doesn’t have any ovaries, it’s likely that she has one of a host of other possible intersex conditions.
As Gerald Callahan covered in his recent book, “Between XX and XY,” there is are an enormous number of possible causes for this kind of unconventional gender expression. These range from an extra chromosomes (babies born as XXY, for example) to Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (in which a gene governing certain hormone receptors is missing from one arm of the X chromosome, with a wide variety of physical results). But, as Callahan exhaustively details in the book, human sex is determined by an enormous number of factors – both genetic and hormonal – and even the smallest discrepancy during the development process can cause a difference from conventional physical gender norms.
Callahan also argues that we should stop categorizing people as purely male and purely female, and that sex, like height and eye color, should be considered on a spectrum instead of a dichotomy. It’s a compelling idea, but it can be hard to imagine putting it into practice – especially when it comes to segregated environments like competitive sports. Sports is one of the most high-profile areas in modern life where sexual divisions are rigidly enforced. Where else would a person’s unconventional gender expression be seen as an “unfair advantage" and lead to such a public testing?
Caster’s story, however, is particularly poignant. She's only 18 years old. She only recently asserted her girly side on the cover of a magazine. More tragically, though, it’s likely she had no idea about her sexual condition before today. Many intersex people don’t learn about their biological history until well into their life, and the discovery can be predictably traumatic if not destructive. To make things worse, in Semenya’s case, her discovery is being played out on an international stage, under the microscope of an ill-informed and often predatory press, while she’s being faced with the knowledge that her career is likely to end.
If there’s an upside to the story, it’s that it’s likely to put intersex issues into the spotlight in a way that they’ve rarely been before. Unlike transgendered people (who benefitted from films like “Transamerica”), intersex people haven’t had many great breakthroughs into mainstream culture. Recently HBO announced it was adapting Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex” (about an intersex Detroiter) into a television show, which suggests that we may be on the verge of a change.
It’s also worth noting that Semenya is far from the first person to fail a sporting gender test. In 2006, Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian runner, was stripped of her Asian Games silver medal after being discovered as intersex. She recently spoke with Time magazine about the experience, claiming that she was “physically and mentally totally broken” after the discovery. She also had moving words of advice for Semenya. “She is a woman and that’s it, full stop,” she said. “A gender test cannot take away from you who you are.”