Caster Semenya: Questionable Gender

8 years ago

Every morning for the last two weeks I've checked for updates about middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. This afternoon, there is an update. News reports all over the world are calling Caster Semenya a hermaphrodite.

(Hermaphrodite is an inaccurate and disrespectful label. From this point on, I will use the word only to point out the way the media is portraying Caster Semenya and not because I support its use in relation to Caster Semenya or any other human being.)

Before we dig into what the update means for Caster the woman and Caster the track star, let's review the basics.

Caster Semenya is an 18-year-old middle distance runner from South Africa. She won the 800-meter gold medal at the 2009 World Championships. (Go Caster!)

She wasn't able to bask for long in the glow of that win. Shortly after the event, her gender was questioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and she was forced to undergo tests to determine whether she was a woman.


Today's news does not include a statement from Caster Semenya or from anyone with the authority to speak on her behalf. The IAAF is also not going on the record at this time... possibly because Semenya has not seen the results of the tests yet.

'We cannot give an exact timing but probably within the next couple of weeks.'

However the Sydney Daily Telegraph claimed the results had been leaked by a source.

Referring to Semenya as a 'she', the paper said she has three times more testosterone than a normal female.

The gender-test results could see her stripped of the gold medal she won last month in Berlin, although the IAAF claimed the recovering the medal would prove difficult.

Semenya, said the paper, is unaware of the tests identifying her as a hermaphrodite.

That's right, it's very possible that 18-year-old Caster has not seen these medical reports.

Imagine this was your 18-year-old daughter. Imagine that she was born intersex. Imagine that there was nothing visible to indicate that she was anything other than your daughter. Imagine 18 years later discovering your daughter has no ovaries or uterus and she has high levels of testosterone which could be caused by any number of medical reasons. Imagine finding out all of these things... through the media. The media mislabeling your daughter as a hermaphrodite.

I won't speculate on Caster's specific medical make-up, but I think it's important to consider the medical issues that can cause a person to be born with no uterus or ovaries and high levels of testosterone. (And to learn more about the different types of intersex conditions human beings can be born with.)

Historically, when a newborn was born with ambiguous genitalia, the parents were often asked to make a choice and the child endured a series of painful "cosmetic" procedures. These days, there's a movement, mostly led by fetally androgenized females, to educate parents and discourage them from mutilating their precious bundle of joy until after puberty when gender is more set, and children can have a say in things.

According to the ISNA gender ambiguity affects about 1 in 1500-2000 live births.

Here’s what we do know: If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life.

What does all of this mean for Caster and her career in women's track and field? Will she be stripped of her medal? Will she be able to continue competing in the sport that she's worked so hard to excel in?

What does this mean for Caster the woman? Has she always felt comfortable in the female skin? Or has she felt like something wasn't right?

After a recent makeover for a magazine cover, Caster said this about the questions about her gender.

"I see it all as a joke, it doesn't upset me," she says. "God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I'm proud of myself."

I hope she holds onto that positive self-image. She's going to need it in the face of the media storm.

At Womanist Musings you'll see Caster on the cover of You magazine. Quite a difference. Does she really love it, as indicated by the cover?

Also of note from that blog post, a comment from Katherine:

It's also worth mentioning that many women who have chromosomes XXY compete as women, and this is entirely within the rules. It's also worth mentioning that transwomen also compete as women, and this is entirely within the rules as long as they are 2 years or more into hormone treatment (and thus no longer getting the physical advantage of male levels of hormones).

There are so many ways to live, so many ways to walk the gender path. Where does this leave Caster Semenya - the human being? She has choices to make, on her own time and in her own way. I just hope everyone remembers that she deserves the same rights and freedoms as any other person.

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