It’s actually quite amazing that this story has become such a globally followed issue, but for me, as for many others, it is so interesting because it involves both the human side and the not-so-simple science of sex and gender.
I’m sure there was a day not so long ago when gender was viewed as a cut and dry issue by the majority of us – if a person had the external sexual organs associated with either sex, it was accepted that the person was that gender. Since then science has delved further and discovered a variety of cases where this simple identification is just not as straightforward as we’d thought. There is a very interesting 'Intersex' association in North America that answers many of the questions here.
In terms of sexuality, more and more people are identifying themselves as transgender – and are convinced that they are ‘in the wrong body’. There are a myriad of combinations of sexual orientation, along with gender identifications. One of my favourite stand up comedians, Eddie Izzard, commonly wears traditionally ‘female’ clothing and identifies himself as a ‘male lesbian’ or a ‘straight transvestite’. Are these people right or wrong? Who are we to judge?
But when it comes to the case of Caster Semenya, if we look for a minute beyond the personal side – beyond the fact that the media coverage her case has attracted is no doubt humiliating and demoralizing – there are the complicated yet unavoidable scientific and ethical issues.
There are pictures all over the Internet of Caster now, with everyone trying to scrutinize every aspect of her appearance. The fact is that she has the complete outward appearance of a male.
Her speech and mannerisms confirm that view.
So when then is a girl not a girl? If Caster identifies as a female, who are we say she is not?
If Caster is subjected to all possible tests, there will be one of many possible outcomes; anything from true hermaphroditism (where a person possesses both male and female sexual organs, internally and/or externally, to variations like male pseudohermaphroditism or a type of gonadal dysgenesis. The bottom line is that it goes far beyond a simple physical inspection of someone's 'private parts'!
There have been numerous cases in the western world, where these conditions are diagnosed at birth, are closely monitored through childhood, and the child is gender assigned, based on their tendencies. I believe if Caster Semenya had been born in different circumstances – i.e. not in a rural village with no access to expensive modern medicine, she would have been one of these people.
Accounts of Caster’s life only reinforce this. She is said to have identified always with boys – and competed on par with her male peers in school throughout her childhood. However, due to the fact that she had no visible penis (and this is really the only reason), she was assumed to be a girl.
The biggest question is an ethical, moral and philosophical one. It has been my opinion that if a person is found to have a Y chromosome, to possess more than 3 times the testosterone as the typical female (as in the case of Caster), then they have an unfair biological advantage over other females (in terms of muscle development etc.), and hence it would be unfair to compete against 'entirely female' women, especially at this level.
Another perspective (that of JW) is that if the person has been classified at birth as a female, with no outward evidence that this is not the case, then she should be able to compete regardless. Her biological advantage is something she is lucky to have, in the same way that people with higher IQs have a biological advantage to others when it comes to academics – yet we all compete on the same level, regardless of the advantages of the smarter people.
It is a very intriguing debate!
However, this is not a theoretical issue. There are victims. The very sad side of this story is Caster herself. As far as she is concerned, she is a woman. Despite any questions she or others she knows have had about her appearance, she is simply a tomboy… however, the IAAF has strict guidelines that may just determine that she is not in fact female. This would mean they would have to strip her of her medal. Imagine the devastation! Not to mention that the whole world (including me) is currently debating her gender. It is a controversy that she has found herself trapped in, through no fault of her own.
I believe that the South African ASA could have dealt with the issue discretely in advance, completing the tests before the Berlin race, so as to eliminate all the aftermath, but their conduct has been uneducated, boorish and infantile. They have accused the IAAF and international media of being racist, despite the fact that these tests have been carried out on female athletes globally, regardless of race or origin, for decades. In interviews, Leonard Chuene, President of the ASA repeatedly ignores the complex issues at hand.
In 2006 Santhi Soundarajan from India, was robbed of her silver medal after the same type of controversy about her gender. Raised as a woman, this blow devasted her and soon after she attempted suicide.
Gender may not be as simple and straightforward as we’d once believed, but it remains a delicate and taboo subject, and when questioned, can have devastating effects...