Tuesday, August 25, 2009

If I Were a Boy... the Caster Semenya Controversy From All Angles

There has been quite a debate raging at my office and in the house, and I’m sure it reflects discussions going on globally this week. It’s about Caster Semenya, the gripping controversy surrounding her 800m gold medal win in Germany, and the subsequent doubts as to her qualification as a ‘true’ female.

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...
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Alessandra said...

Your Semenya thoughts did not include the following very suspicious element: the head coack of Athletics SA, Ekkart Arbeit. He was head coach for throwing events of the East German track and field team from 1982-88 and chief coach in 1989-90, meaning among others, the East German shot put team and Heidi Krieger.

The latest alleged twist of events regarding Caster do make the plot thicken in this case. A German article alleges that:

Caster Semenya's ex-coach has claimed the sex test controversy athlete is actually a hermaphrodite. The unnamed coach told Swiss tabloid ‘Blick’ that tests to determine her gender had already been taken. “South Africa carried them out in March. The result is clear. Semenya should not have been allowed to start with the women at the World Championships in Berlin.“

The unnamed source also claimed that South Africa’s head coach Ekkart Arbeit, who used to hold the same position with East Germany, “knew exactly what had to be done“ to get Semenya past authorities in previous competitions.

Her testosterone level can be altered using medication so that she was not found out in previous doping tests.


If it's true, they pulled a big joke on the world...

The pale observer said...

Thanks Allesandra - I did hear about Arbeit today on the BBC and yes, that does raise questions, but I believe that Caster herself did not 'pull the wool' intentionally.

It might have been that the authorities completed the tests and then went ahead to trick the world, but at the end of the day, this huge controversy means that it will no doubt be discovered, AND that Caster herself will be the biggest victim...

kdar said...

Thanks for this interesting post Holly.

There is a huge, divisive debate raging here in Vancouver over the issue of women's only spaces and what that means, after Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter just won a ten year court case that went all the way to the supreme court about refusing a transwoman who wanted to volunteer on the crisis line. I feel torn about it, because you have female sexual assault victims who only feel comfortable talking to women about their experiences, and don't feel comfortable with transwomen because they lived their lives and were socialized as men. The question they raise at VRR is, working as a sexual assault crisis worker, you must be able to empathize with the experience of growing up female.

This stance has completely divided the community, as other centres welcome transwomen. I'm working in a safehouse for women int he DTES right now and the organizations policy is that we define women as anyone who "walks in the world as female."

But how to define what it means to be a "real woman" continues to be perplexing. The women's only pharmacy Lu's in the DTES just excluded a transwoman because of their policy to only provide service for people who were "born women" - which means that they will still serve transmen- that is, people living as men who were born female.


Darian said...

In defence of the IAAF, they never meant for it to become public. The tests were already going on, and Semenya knew that. THe public dissemination has been traced to a faulty fax (which is still no excuse, but it restores my belief in the IAAF, that they didn't mean for this to become public domain). As for natural advantage - there is such a thing as too much advantage. THe same reason Caster can't compete with her peers if she has too much testosterone is the same reason people with very high IQs are usually not placed in the same school or classes with people with 'normal' IQs - at a point, the disparity is obvious and unfair.

The pale observer said...

@kdar - yes the whole gender definition thing becomes silly when it comes down to refusing to serve people in a pharmacy!

@Darian - thanks for your comments - I also believe the IAAF did not mean to let the issue leak and become such a media free-for-all. But Caster Semenya's performance and looks alone hae been raising eyebrows - probably not least with the other runners and coaches! It was something that was bound to go public since the ASA allowed her to run without conducting the prior testing...
The debate rages on...

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I still don't get it and I think we are inhumane in our treatment. Do we think about the psychological effects these 'stupidity' would have on the victims? Okay can we say the Usain Bolt's testosterone levels is say three times that of a normal man hence he is a superman and therefore should not run? These are biological advantages, so far as it has not been artificially manipulated, say a man turning himself into a woman through surgical operation. In every spot people bear certain biological traits that give them advantages. Shaqueal O'neal's height gives him advantage in Basketball so what do we say about that? The fact that it has been done before does not mean that we should continue repeating it. We are a dynamic race and we need not repeat mistakes. This is uncalled for and I see no sense in what the IAAF people or whoever they are did. Then we should set standards for every single sport for both men and women. If you legs are or a certain length you don't go into a long-jump because it gives you a certain advantage etc. Does this makes sense?

The pale observer said...

Hi Nana - excellent comments and definitely food for thought!

My perspective is that for some reason men and women have never been allowed to compete side by side in sport, and this is due to the fact that men have certain biological advantages when it comes to muscles, body structure etc.

Hence, if they find Caster to be predominantly male (in terms of hormones, chromosomes etc., then she has too much of an advantage over the other female runners.

Your points however all well taken, and these limitations could be taken to a ridiculous level - as in judging who has a biological advantage - since every human being has strengths and some are simply better than others.

The most important downside to all this testing and eliminating is the effect it has on the athlete. How humiliating all this must be!!!

thatgirlblogs said...

I feel sorry for her.

thatgirlblogs said...

I feel sorry for her.

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