Have you heard about Caster Semenya? You might have, because she’s been in the news rather a lot lately. Ms. Semenya is an 18 year old South African, who happens to be a blazingly fast runner. She was introduced to the international athletics scene very recently, and in the last week, a controversy has been swirling around her: is Semenya actually of the male sex?
The controversy has arisen for two reasons:
1. She doesn’t “look” like most people think a woman should look. Ms. Semenya has superb muscle definition and a lean body.
2. She’s fast. Really, really fast. Obviously, if you’re fast, you must be a man.
Sports is sex segregated for a simple reason: there are biological differences between men and women which give men a distinct athletic advantage. Female athletes at their peak are far more fit than most men in the world, but they can’t always compete fairly against men in their peak. For this reason, events are primarily sex segregated. I think this is reasonable. Most people think this is reasonable. I also think, of course, that if you have a male sporting event in a competition, there needs to be an equivalent women’s event.
So, people think that Ms. Semenya’s sex is male, and that therefore she has an unfair edge on her competition. Ms. Semenya has been publicly humiliated to the point that she didn’t want to go to the podium to accept a gold medal for her superb performance. Her entry onto the international scene should have been triumphant and amazing, but instead: “No one has ever said I was not a girl, but here I am not. I am not a boy. Why did you bring me here? You should have left me in my village at home. (Source.)”
There are a lot of concurrent problems going on here. The first is the way that the situation has been handled. Public humiliation was not necessary.
The second is the concept of sex testing for athletes. Historically, there have been a few cases of nations entering male athletes in women’s sports. For this reason, sex verification started occurring for a lot of international events. Initially, it was of the crude “drop your pants for the jury” variety. Over time, as the understanding of human sexuality has expanded, “sex verification” has gotten much more complicated, with a battery of tests and a committee which includes endocrinologists, psychologists, and so forth.
In the course of sex testing, sporting bodies have in fact uncovered a few examples of female athletes who are biologically male and didn’t realize it. This is what people seem to think is happening in this case: no one (no one rational, anyway) is accusing Ms. Semenya of faking it, but rather, suggestions are being made that she has a biological condition which renders her biologically male, or which causes an increase in masculinizing hormones which could give her an unfair advantage when she competes with women.
This case has highlighted a lot of ignorance about sex and gender. Many people are not aware, for example, that sex is not as simple as “male or female,” and it is in fact extremely complex and nuanced. I’ve seen a lot of really, really, really ignorant and hateful things being said, both by average people and in the news media.
So I want to unpack some of those things.
First of all, news media: stop confusing sex and gender. Ms. Semenya is a woman. That is not going to change, that is not in question. She. Is. A. Woman. That is her gender. Her sex is what is being questioned here. Therefore, it is not appropriate to refer to “gender testing” or “gender verification” or “gender anything” when you are talking not about gender identity, but BIOLOGICAL SEX. Ms. Semenya doesn’t need gender verification; she already knows she’s a woman. So do her friends and family members. The question is: does Ms. Semenya have a genetic condition which renders her biologically male, or which has given her advantages not available to XX women?
The question isn’t even really “is Ms. Semenya a man?” It’s actually: Is Ms. Semenya female enough to compete in women’s sports? It may be that Ms. Semenya has some genetic abnormalities which could be medically treatable (such as with drugs to suppress hormone production), thereby allowing her to compete with women. It’s entirely possible that Ms. Semenya is your garden variety XX lady, and she’s just really good at what she does. It’s also possible that she will be deemed “not female enough to run with the women, not male enough to run with the men,” and that would be tragic, because it would mean depriving a talented young woman of the ability to do what she loves unless she wants to undergo radical medical treatment.
Second of all, for the general public, in re: transgendered athletes: Transgendered athletes are allowed to compete with their gender after two years of hormone treatment. That means that if someone is born biologically male but gendered female and chooses to undergo hormone treatment, she can compete with the women. Some sporting authorities demand verification of sexual reassignment surgery*. Others do not. I want to stress this, because this is important: other people’s genitals? Not your business. Some transgendered people choose to get SRS. Others do not. In either case? Not your business.
Also, in re: transgendered people: Please don’t call them “transgendereds.” Please, especially, do not say “a transgender.” “A transgender” does not compute. It is insanely offensive. Would you say “a gay”? “A Black”? “A Jew?”
Also, in re: intersexed people: Do not, ever, use the word “hermaphrodite,” unless someone specifically identifies as a hermaphrodite and uses that word self-referentially. If you use this word in my presence to refer to an intersexed person, I will harm you. It is completely unacceptable, dated, and heinously offensive.
Third of all: Don’t tell me what a woman looks like. Don’t tell a woman “looks like a man.” Don’t tell me that a woman deserves to be publicly humiliated because she doesn’t meet your personal standard of “what a man looks like.”
Hey. I get that these issues are complicated, and when you haven’t been thinking about them or studying them, you are bound to make some mistakes. But I am seeing a lot of transmisogyny, transphobia, straight up misogyny, and shocking ignorance here. And it’s really pissing me off.
*Edited to add: the IOC requires SRS, hormone therapy, and certification of full transition from a recognized legal authority for athletes who transition after puberty.This policy has been criticized by athletes who argue that not all transgendered people want/can afford SRS, and as a result they would be excluded from competition. I’m hoping that this will change as the IOC and other sporting organizations learn more about transgender issues; there’s no earthly reason to require SRS from transgender athletes. The Women’s Sports Foundation has an excellent article on transgender athletes which I would recommend people read if they want more information on this subject.