Sex, sexism and sport: the Caster Semenya case

Caster Semenya, world champion South African runner, is both “a woman… and a man!” So said the New York Daily News, days after the results of “gender tests” had been leaked to the Australian media.
While the mass media struggles to get its head around the idea that a human being could exist outside the rigid ideas of gender, Semenya’s athletic life—not to mention her private life—has been all but destroyed.
All of this began in August this year, when Semenya set a new world record over 800 metres at the 2009 World Championships for Athletics in Berlin.
After Semenya’s victory, unfavourable media reports, as well as a complaint from Australian track officials, caused the International Association of Athletics Federation to proclaim that they would subject Semenya to “gender tests” in order to verify her right to compete in the women’s track events.
What was at stake, we were lead to believe, was the very future of sport as we know it. How can we watch women’s sport if we don’t know that all of the competitors have a full set of ovaries?
As the media and athletics federations bayed for blood, Semenya was subjected to this series of invasive “gender tests”, the results of which were leaked to the media.
They revealed, allegedly, that Semenya is intersex—that is, she has both male and female sex characteristics. Millions of people worldwide are classified as intersex (although they, like Semenya, are often called by the outdated and offensive term “hermaphrodite”). It is thought that as many as one in 1500 babies have some sort of sex anatomy variation.
The other distinct possibility is that Semenya has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), which is also a common occurrence, affecting around one out of every 50,000 people.
After Semenya’s world championship victory, much was made of an interview conducted with her grandmother, who spoke lovingly of raising Semenya as a girl in rural South Africa. The mass media responded with a racist portrayal of a backward community that was unable to tell that Semenya was somehow different from other children.
The reality is that if Semenya is indeed intersex, and her family did indeed raise her as a girl, they were following the lead of most medical practitioners worldwide. It is accepted wisdom amongst most of the medical community that it is “easier” for intersex children, or those with AIS, to be raised in one of the commonly accepted gender patterns—that is, as either boys or girls.
Gender, that is being a woman or a man, is not a product of what sexual organs we do—or don’t—have. Gender is socially determined, a product of how we are raised and what society expects of us. These expectations characterise our entire lives under capitalism—from how we are schooled, to what work we do, what chores we do at home and, crucially for Semenya, whom we are allowed to play sports against.
Many of these divisions between male and female genders are completely arbitrary, and social movements have long fought this—the campaign for equal pay for equal work is a crucial example.
Some medical experts, such as Dr. Myron Genel, a professor emeritus of paediatrics at Yale University, realise the tenuous connection between sex and gender. Genel says of Semenya, “She’s born a female, raised as a female through puberty. Whatever is found, with the exception of deliberate substance abuse, she’s going to have to be allowed to compete as a female.”
On top of the purposeful blur between sex and gender, there is a strong element of sexism at play in the treatment of Semenya.
Whereas someone like Ian Thorpe, the world champion swimmer, has his “abnormal” physical attributes lauded, participants in women’s sports are expected to maintain a womanly off-track persona—hence Semenya’s appearance on the cover of magazines in women’s dresses and make-up.
Semenya’s “gender tests” have revealed only one thing conclusively—our sex organs do not determine our gender.
Gender is determined by social relationships. Unfortunately for Semenya, our social relationships need radical rewriting and it seems that this will not come soon enough to save her athletic career.
But while it may be too late for Semenya, it is not too late to fight for the rights of people who sit outside gender norms—indeed, to fight against the very existence of these norms.


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