The current controversy over the gender question about runner Caster Semenya brings up so many different topics of discussion that I couldn’t begin to adequately cover then all. But let’s at least try to sort through some of them. I’ll call this blog entry “part 1” in that regard, with the thought that there is much more to say.
I also want to put up this disclaimer – for the purpose of discussing these things here, I’m using some really general and unspecific ways to describe potential medical conditions. A medical professional would most definitely use different terms and be much more specific. This blog entry is more to start a dialogue and offer some general thoughts; it is not meant to be taken as a professionally researched medical article.
That said, here’s the situation: Semenya, an 18-year-old from South Africa, won the women’s 800 meters at track’s World Championships this week in Berlin. Her time of 1 minute, 55.45 seconds crushed the rest of the field. Semenya burst on the elite track and field scene only this year, and when she did, there were immediately questions because in many ways she does not appear traditionally “female” in appearance.
By that, I do not mean appearing traditionally “feminine.” This isn’t about a woman who doesn’t wear make-up or fix her hair a certain way or dress/walk in ways we tend to think are “feminine.”
This is about an 18-year-old who speaks in a voice deeper than we are accustomed to in females, has little or no breast development, and in other facets of her physical appearance seems to resemble a male more than a female.
Track’s international governing body, the IAAF, requested a gender verification be done in regard to Semeya a few weeks back both because of appearance and how dramatically she had lowered her personal-best times in the 800 and 1,500.
Now, the IAAF awaits the results of the gender tests, which are much, much more complicated than the simplistic “dropping of the drawers” that it seems a great many folks think is the procedure in such cases.
In seeing the reaction to the Semenya issue, I’ve been quite surprised at how many people seem unaware of how complex gender can be in a human being. There are various medical conditions that can cause true gender ambiguity, and though they are rare, this is not the first time that the sports world has dealt with this.
I’m not saying that this is what is happening with Semenya – that is all still to be determined. Just that this is what the IAAF is concerned about and why the tests were requested.
A person may be born with no external male genitalia – but in virtually all other ways – including the body’s production of testosterone – be essentially “male.” Were this were the case with someone, she may fully believe herself to be female _ if for no other reason than the very obvious lack of an external penis and testicles.
However, biologically – again, save genitalia – she would be male. And because she might have more naturally produced male hormones, this may give her a competitive edge against the vast majority of the female population.
Which gets us into difficult ground. How does a sport deal with that?
Is it fair to tell an athlete she can’t compete because of a something that is natural in her body, even if it’s unnatural for virtually all of the rest of those whom she would be competing against?
By the same token, though, is it fair to women competitors to go against someone who, biologically, is so very measurably different from them as to possibly be “mostly” the other gender?
How, exactly, does science draw the line? Well, it’s too complicated for me to even try to explain. But in terms of what kind of report the IAAF will get, there will be an ultimate decision on Semenya’s gender, based on a variety of tests and expert testimony.
But how do we really “decide” these things? There are standard “norms” for body chemistry in both sexes, and most people do fall into those norms. But … not everyone does. And even among those who do, they might be at the far end of the spectrum. There always have been females whose voices are deeper, whose hips are narrower, whose muscle tone is more defined, etc. At what point does that cross a so-called “line” into them having a truly unfair “edge” biologically?
What’s going on within their body is outside the so-called “norm.” But by the same token, when a woman is, say, 6-foot-7, she is also outside the biological “norm.” And obviously no one would say she couldn’t compete in basketball.
However … what if she were 6-7 and also had a medical condition in which her biological makeup and characteristics were essentially male, save external genitalia? Then what?
Women in most elite athletic endeavors – not all, but most – cannot reasonably compete against men because of the very biological differences we’re all well aware of in the “standard” male vs. female body.
And if a woman takes performance-enhancing drugs that cause her body to produce more testosterone than what’s been decreed in the “normal” range for a female _ and she’s caught _ she is disqualified. But should it be the same thing if her body does this all on its own?
Honestly, I can’t come up with a satisfying answer in my own head about this. I think it has to be left to the scientific experts on gender to decide at what point someone is “too male” to qualify as a female athletically.
I understand why a lot of people are angry about all this and feel it is cruel and unfair to put an 18-year-old –or anyone – through it. And I understand those who fear this this is sexist and a sort of gender-stereotyping because Semenya doesn’t “look” traditionally female.
Frankly, I find it agonizing to even write about all this because of empathy for what this teen-ager is going through. The problem is, if this is a medical condition, unfortunately there may be no avoiding going through it. From all accounts, she has been “teased” about her gender for most of her life – something she is far from alone in facing. Maybe the tests will help her find some answers that she might have personally. Maybe not.
But because it could indeed be a medical issue, then it can’t simply be written off as sexist or stereotyping to ask the questions that IAAF is having to ask. No one wants Semenya to endure this, but it simply may be unavoidable for an elite athlete.
Sports has dealt with these issues before, and the simplest way I can describe the types of occurrences is to break them into these three categories:
1. True, biological males who intentionally try to “pass” as female to exploit their advantage. As far as documented cases in international events, this has rarely happened. Probably the most famous case was that of “Dora” Ratjen, whose real first name was Hermann.
He competed in the women’s high jump for Germany in 1936 Olympics, and while there were whispers about the “odd-looking” girl, he was allowed to take part. Later, he was revealed to be a man who had “hidden” his genitals by binding them while competing. He said he was coerced into doing this by leaders of the Hitler Youth, who were looking for ways for host nation Germany to win more medals at the Berlin Games.
Interestingly enough, despite being a man competing against women, he did not win. He finished fourth. Perhaps he might not have been all that great a male high jumper … plus, well, it would sure seem like tightly binding your genitals would not be a very comfortable way to compete.
2. Athletes who are of an ambiguous gender (they may or may not totally realize this) but compete as females. Probably the most famous case of this was track competitor Stella Walsh (which was the anglicized version of her Polish name, Stanisława Walasiewiczówna).
She won the women’s 100 meters at the 1932 Olympics and took silver in the 1936 Games. And while there were certainly questions about her appearance, she was never “gender-tested.” In fact, it was her rival, American Helen Stephens, who WAS tested – by visual inspection, for lack of a better way to put it – by track officials in 1936. Stephens, who won the 100 gold in those Olympics, passed that test.
However, many years later, it was Walsh who did not pass a post-mortem test. An autopsy after her death in 1980 revealed she had some form of male genitalia and a chromosomal disorder, as she had both XX and XY.
Walsh, were she in her youth today, very likely would be disqualified from competing as a woman. While she lived all her life as a woman, as best I can tell it’s never been entirely clear if she understood her own physical makeup. Or, for that matter, if anyone – including whoever did the autopsy – fully understood it, either.
3. Female athletes who develop male physical characteristics because of the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. There have been too many, sadly, to even begin to try to document them all.
The world found out after the fall of the Soviet Union/Iron Curtain in the early 1990s that there had been rampant and systematic use of PEDs in Eastern Bloc countries _ a process actually directed by their athletic federations.
The old “joke” about the East German mother of a swimmer who wondered, “Why does my daughter now sound like my son?” was actually no joke at all. The “drugging” of athletes reached such an extreme in some cases that, essentially, they were chemically changing from women into men.
One of the more well-known examples was that of Andreas Krieger, a former female East German shot-putter who had a sex change and became a man after years of being given steroids. Jere Longman of the New York Times wrote a compelling story about Krieger in 2004 that explained what happened to this athlete and others in that system.
Interestingly enough, the woman who holds the world record in Semenya’s winning event, the 800, is Jarmila Kratochvilova of what was then Czechoslavakia. She set the mark way back in 1983. Her time of 1:53.28 has stood all these years, and there were questions about her, too. Her appearance during her competitive days seemed “male” to such a degree that people wondered about PEDs. And as she was from an Eastern Bloc country, even though it was never proven she took anything, there will always be questions.
A similar thing must be said, though, about the late Florence Griffith Joyner, an American sprinter whose world records in the 100 and 200 still stand 21 years later. While FloJo’s appearance wasn’t really “masculine” – to the contrary, she affected an ultra-feminine presence – it didn’t mask the dramatic changes in her body. That and the drastic reductions in her times also will always leave room for speculation.
So … back to Semenya. At least thus far, I’ve seen no suggestion that she knowingly is a male trying to pass as a female, nor that she has taken PEDs. The gender ambiguity the IAAF is questioning in her case appears to be of the second variety of those listed above – a possible medical condition.
Ultimately, in my mind I keep going back to the famous line from “Hamlet:”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I believe that this applies to gender and gender identity _ even though many people either don’t understand or can’t admit this. Historically as a species, we’ve always seemed to force each other into one of two clearly defined and separate categories: male or female.
Yet it never has and never will be that simple. Cases like Semenya’s can inspire a thoughtful dialogue about this, as uncomfortable as it is to have and as uncertain as our conclusions might be.