Caster Semenya

Introduction

Caster Semenya is an 18-year old runner from South Africa who was about to compete in a 4000 meter run after she had run a previous race and won the gold medal. There had been reports that she was suspected of not being a woman because of her musculature and her deep voice (and I highly suspect people were sort of jealous) . This speculation led her to get an examination by the IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federations). A doctor from Otago tested and examined her and found her to have an intersex condition, meaning that she possesses both female and male gonadal tissue (she did not have ovaries or a womb, but possessed inner testes).

There is a lot of controversy going around her right now because she may not be able to keep her medal due to the tests showing she had three times the amount of testosterone a normal female would have.

Since sports is so divided because of supposed biological advantages and body compositions of men and women, Semenya may be banned from participated anymore in the competition.

Since ideas of gender are so built into self-identity and also are very emotionally bound (for example if someone accused you of not being man enough or much of a woman, you would probably be taken a back or maybe offended), this is a very sensitive issue. Many people in forums, on blogs, and on the news are now not considering her a woman. She has been raised all her life as a woman and ran as a woman and probably identifies as a woman. Her family did not report knowing of her intersexuality, nor does it seem to matter much . Since this supposed “discovery” of who Semenya really is, apparently she is not a woman anymore.

In a wordpress article (http://identityrevealed.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/man-or-woman-revisited/) I found out that You magazine did a make-over of Caster. All I can say to that is, interesting.

Intersexuality

In this section I want to highlight some things I find highly problematic and troubling with some of the reports on Semenya.

First, In the news people are referring to Caster as a ‘hermaphrodite’. Hermaphrodite is a controversial term and considered offensive because of its connotations with the authoritative power medicine has had over the bodies of people who have been born with both female and male gonadal tissue (ovaries and testes). The correct term, that is still used in science, would be psuedohermaphrodite because she does not have ovaries.  Hermaphrodite is an old term and is used in old scientific journals. DSD (disorder of sexual development) has been determined by the ISNA (Intersex Society of North America) and Alice Dreger to be the term that is to be used in scientific texts from this point on. This term is also considered offensive by some because of the use of “disorder” and the term VSD is more commonly used or “Variation of Sexual Development”. This population has been too often referred to as freaks, monsters,  not human, not woman, not man, in between, etc. Refer to them as they prefer. If they have been raised a woman, call them a woman. If they have been raised a man, call them a man. Its about respect, call them what they wish to be called.

Two, do not make it about gender identity. Just because Semenya has been found to have typically male gonadal tissue does not make her less of a woman. Gender is complicated. It is not just about biology or raising a person or self-identity. It is about all of the above and more and it is a personal thing and should not be contested publicly.

Third, I think most of this is a Western thing to be concerned with, gender. We are all about categories and who fits where and how so that they can have a certain role. Races and sports are all about categories and natural selection at its own form of visible entertainment. Displaying physical agility and ability started out as a Grecian thing, a male thing. Sports usually have been a Western male white thing. Since Semenya performed so well especially at something that has been so predominantly and historically white and Western, she is bound to come under scrutiny and one of the first things to be on the list is that since she performed so well, she must be a man!

Finally, LANGUAGE. For the last time, language. It is not a shame, a horrible thing, or “at worst” that she may be intersex.

Conclusion

Caster Semenya’s controversy in sport may lead to categorization about what makes a man or a woman, which IS problematic. In the past there have been distinctions about how much of a hormone, how long your clitoris or how small your penis is, how long your labia is, or how deep your vagina is, either makes you or leaves you short of being a “man” or a “woman”. Categories in popular culture are oppressive to individuals. The Western world is obsessed with people fitting and being able to fit into designated categories and sports has made this issue clearer. Be aware of what these categories mean to the individual before making policy or law about it because that is dangerous.

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