Saturday, August 22, 2009

Caster Semenya and the Rules of the Gender Game

If you've been watching, or reading, or listening to the news lately, it's likely you've heard of Caster Semenya - probably less for her extraordinary athletic performance in the 800-meter race and more for the controversy surrounding her gender.

The press has been mostly sensationalistic because it seems everyone loves to jump onto a story about the latest medical "oddity". Finally came across a NYTimes article today which gives a nod to the difficulties Semenya must be facing now and in the future as a result of this; in addition to considering the difficulty of defining gender itself.

"Where's the rulebook?" it asks.

Androgen insensitivity syndrome is mentioned in the article. Being androgen insensitive myself, I am an example of how it's not chromosomes that can define someone's gender.

Though the sporting world probably wishes it were more clear-cut, I don't think they'll find easy answers to gender definitions anywhere -- not in the genitals, not in the pitch of one's voice or the cut of one's jaw.

The Times article makes a great point in particular with the following:

Sure, in certain sports, a woman with naturally high levels of androgens has an advantage. But is it an unfair advantage? I don’t think so. Some men naturally have higher levels of androgens than other men. Is that unfair?

Consider an analogy: Men on average are taller than women. But do we stop women from competing if a male-typical height gives them an advantage over shorter women? Can we imagine a Michele Phelps or a Patricia Ewing being told, “You’re too tall to compete as a woman?” So why would we want to tell some women, “You naturally have too high a level of androgens to compete as a woman?” There seems to be nothing wrong with this kind of natural advantage.

Sports officials have claimed the genetic tests on Semenya will take weeks due to their complexity. In my opinion, it's not the tests that will take weeks--those will take days. It's the ensuing debate over the results and figuring out what comes next which will take the real time.

Though I hate for Semenya or any individual to be placed in the spotlight amidst such controversy, on the positive side I think this whole issue is forcing a more open dialogue around a subject which continues to be taboo.

Folks who are intersex, or who just don't neatly fit our definitions of the binary male/female condition, have been around as long as human history, and it's a bit sad that we haven't wholly accepted them.

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