Caster Semenya, sport and sex tests

“Hell no.” This was the response from two time Olympic champion Caster Semenya after the IAAF, the athletics governing body, ruled that she would need to take testosterone lowering medication to continue to compete in the women’s division of her two best events.

Semenya is hyperandrogenic, meaning she has naturally elevated testosterone levels higher than those of most women.

Comparisons have rightly been made between Semenya and Michael Phelps, whose naturally lower levels of lactic acid were accepted without question as a fair natural advantage. But testosterone is politicised by its association with gender.

To compel anyone to take hormone altering medication against their wishes is outrageous, and it is especially telling that the backlash to Semenya’s case from the conservative press has been non-existent despite years of media hysteria surrounding trans children consensually accessing hormone treatment. It is clear that the problem is not hormone medication itself, but the deep entrenchment of the gender binary in our institutions.

This isn’t just about hormones either. The same relentless gender interrogations were levelled at trans AFLW player Hannah Mouncey last year, despite her meeting all the AFL’s testing criteria.

Racism is tied up in Semenya’s case too: we’ve seen that it doesn’t take a blood test for successful black athletes to have their womanhood called into question. In 2014 the head of the Russian Tennis Federation referred to Venus and Serena Williams as “The Williams Brothers”.

Semenya’s case is a result not just of ideas about gender being socially determined. It’s also clearer than ever that biological sex is not binary either. We’ve known for some time that there is room for significant variance between a person’s chromosome makeup and other perceived sex indicators like genitalia and hormone levels.

In elite sport, of course, that binary is not going anywhere fast. And we will need to continue to stand with trans athletes, intersex athletes, and all athletes who have their gender called into question.

But this has implications beyond sport. Together with the science, we can look to a socialist vision which understands that many of the distinctions between male and female are arbitrary and can be dissolved. It’s a vision in which, as Russian socialist Alexandra Kollontai wrote, “a great universal family of workers will develop” and all genders “will above all be comrades”.

By Matilda Fay


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