Do we really want sports defining gender?

More troubling questions arise from the case of intersex athlete Caster Semenya

By Sady Doyle

Published October 12, 2009 12:13PM (EDT)

This weekend, the IAAF, the authority which governs world track and field, announced that they were working on a definition of gender.

“We were in Copenhagen (at the International Olympic Committee meetings) and I asked my colleagues from other sports if they had a definition and nobody has one,” said general secretary Pierre Weiss. “But nobody [else] has had the problem so far.”

“The problem” is Caster Semenya, whose gender testing ordeal has been broadcast to the world. It's also Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of a silver medal won in the 2006 Asian Games after failing her gender test, Ewa Klowbuskowa, who was banned from competing after failing a chromosome test (she later gave birth to a son), and other female track and field athletes who have been outed as intersex.

Public outcry over the handling of Semenya's case has brought attention to the issue, but gender tests -– conducted disproportionately on women -- have been around for ages. They were once mandatory for female Olympic athletes who competed internationally, due to (largely unsubstantiated) fears that some countries were sending in male ringers. Early tests involved making women walk naked past a panel of gynecologists, which says something about how simplistic the operative understanding of gender was. Current tests are more scientific, but they're still invasive and ill-conceived.

It would be funny, the idea of handing the task of “defining gender” over to sporting authorities -- rather than, say, the scientists and social theorists who have been struggling to do it for centuries -- if it weren't so troubling. One thing we do know is that not all human bodies fit into neat gender categories: the Intersex Society of North America lists over a dozen conditions that can fall under the umbrella of “intersex,” including a dizzying number of potential chromosomal alignments, which manifest in different ways, and many of which can go undetected. Currently, the IAAF differentiates between conditions that “give advantage” and those which don't, in the interest of fairness, but non-intersex women can beat and have beaten intersex women in competition. And the main impetus for contemporary gender testing is “suspicion” -- and suspicion comes from all those messy social factors, not science. Even if the IAAF seeks to adopt a more progressive gender stance (as it did when it allowed some transgender athletes (PDF) to compete), it's still necessarily policing gender. And a comprehensive, final understanding of how our bodies relate to our identities is probably not within the reach of the governing authority for world track and field.

Sady Doyle

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Broadsheet Caster Semenya Feminism