Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Search Of The History That Hasn't Happened: Caster Semenya, Gender Barriers And The Right To Compete

Several weeks ago, while watching some early round matches at the U.S. Open, a friend of mine and I were discussing how unbelievably homophobic the world of sports still is. Of course, you might point out that we were having this conversation at the National Tennis Center, which is named after a lesbian. Billie Jean King first fought sexism in the sport; was then forced out of the closet; and then, having lost all her sponsorships, competed as an out lesbian. Subsequently, Martina Navratilova (pictured at left in all her glorious butchness) came out, lost her sponsorships, competed as an out lesbian and -- also like King-- became a serious player in the political and legal struggle for civil equality.

But friends, this boundary in tennis was broken thirty years ago. Where is the history of queer athletes moving into the mainstream that should have followed? Can you name more than one or two openly queer tennis players who are active today? Are any of them men? Can you name any other active, queer professional athletes, men or women? Even though there must be hundreds -- thousands -- of them?

The conversation with my friend easily slipped over into a related subject: transphobia in sports, why it affects women exclusively, and the ongoing investigation of the outstanding South African runner Caster Semenya. For those of you who are not sports fans, Semenya's gender identity as a woman has been challenged by some of her competitors, prompting an official scientific inquiry by the governing body in international track and field as to her "real" gender. I say "a related conversation" because, despite the critical alliances between gay and lesbian people and people who identify as transgendered, it's not the same conversation and sometimes it is a very different one. Perhaps the most prominent thing shared among those people described by the initials G,L,B and T is that we do not enjoy full constitutional rights. Hence, we are often unable to fully merge our private and our public selves without becoming the objects of bigotry and violence, and our access to status and success is often limited by our inability to present ourselves as simultaneously legally, physically and socially "normal."

The categories described by the initials often overlap as well (as categories tend to do because they are all intellectual constructions to begin with), which is another important reason for such alliances: people shift from one initial to another, or inhabit several of them simultaneously. In a world dominated by monogamy, bisexual people in the end tend to choose one partner and that choice is a socially defining one: regardless of the gender identity of that person, they have to work pretty hard to remind people that they belong in the B category. Similarly, many female to male transsexuals begin their adult sexual lives as lesbians, become men while still desiring women sexually, and then become socially "straight" - often while still thinking of themselves as queer. Male to female transsexuals who continue to be attracted to women become lesbians, and some FTM's find themselves powerfully drawn to sex with men for the first time in their lives. Some transpeople proudly identify as ungendered, as transgendered, or as transsexual. Others go stealth which, for the uninitiated, means living in the gender that you feel is rightly yours and leaving the gender assigned at birth behind. Hence, some transpeople are freed to no longer be perceived as queer at all.

So let's come back to the trouble gender creates for women athletes, and is currently causing for Caster Semenya (pictured at right) in particular. You may recall that, having come out as a lesbian in 1981, Navratilova intensified her training and transformed her body to achieve a level of athleticism previously unseen in the girly-girl world of women's tennis. As she swept up title after title, there were increasingly nasty public remarks about Navratilova not being a "real" woman; some said she should only be permitted to compete against men. That Navratilova came from the Soviet bloc, where the use of hormones and other forms of doping in national athletic development programs had become state policy, undoubtedly fueled a prejudice that was entirely American: Navratilova was simply not feminine enough in her physical or her social self.

It was probably no coincidence that Navratilova's transformation occurred just subsequent to Renee Richards' successful battle against the USTA for the right to compete against women after having undergone sex reassignment. What is also important, in my view, is that while homophobia affects everybody, it is the female body that is the object of scientific scrutiny in sports. Demands for chromosomal testing for women who looked too powerful to be women have been pervasive since it was possible to do chromosomal tests. As the documentary movie about the history of women's rowing, A Hero For Daisy (Mary Mazzio, 2000) underlines, women who raise the level of female competition are always perceived as being improperly gendered. Chris Ernst, a short, wiry, muscular Olympic rower who won gold in the women's double sculls at the 1986 world rowing championships, was repeatedly challenged throughout her rowing career as to her "real" gender.

According to this article published in 2000 by Myron Genel, an endocrinologist and Professor of Pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine, there is a history to this form of scrutiny that begins with women's difficulty in gaining access to national and international athletic competition in the first place. As the resistance of national and international athletic organizations was eroded by the determination of women to compete at high levels, and the popularity of high profile women like Babe Didrickson Zaharias, "increasing attention was devoted to the concept of a 'level playing field.'" As Genel writes,

In a number of instances, questions were raised regarding the "femininity" of highly successful female competitors, in particular during the Cold War era of competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. These rumors were abetted by anecdotal reports of recognized athletes who were found to have varying degrees of intersexuality. In 1 case, a Polish sprinter with an apparent chromosomal mosaicism was stripped of her medals. Three track and field champions who competed as women before World War II subsequently underwent reconstructive surgery and sex reassignment. These cases led to efforts to ensure that women competing at international events were in fact women, initially with rather crude and demeaning efforts at physical examination. In 2 instances, women athletes were required to parade nude before a panel of female physicians, and at another event women athletes were required to undergo direct gynecologic examination.

By 1968, an unreliable form of chromosomal testing was added to physical examinations, which over the next decade became routine at the Olympic level for men and women. Chromosomal testing has become more sophisticated since then, but no less controversial, in part because the more we learn about the science of gender the less we can say with confidence about gender as a social category. Put simply, our binary gender system cannot account for the many chromosomal combinations that occur in real bodies or the hormonal variations that suppress or enhance gendered physical characteristics. Because of this, in 1999, at the urging of the Athlete's Commission, the IOC suspended routine testing for the Sydney summer games, replacing it with a policy pioneered by by the governing body of international track and field that "permits intervention and evaluation of individual athletes by appropriate medical personnel if there is any question regarding gender identity." But as Genel points out, the only effect of chromosomal testing has been to bar women who exceed the female performance norm from potentially competing against women who are at the norm or fall short of it. People who are socially male and are weaker are allowed to simply lose, whereas people who are socially female face suspicion that they might not be women after all.

For those who have been following the news about Caster Semenya, it may be dispiriting to see how far athletics has not come in being able to imagine that the phrase "female athlete" is not, in some way, a contradiction in terms. But it is even more dispiriting to read the impoverished nature of the public discussion, which posits Semenya and her supporters' claim that she is a "real woman" against the possibility that she is just a "freak." Last week, the Associated Press reported that an Australian newspaper had scooped the gender tests on Semenya (which include an MRI) that are not to be officially completed or released until November, prompting the new rumor that she has internal testicles and no ovaries, and is therefore not "a woman." Meanwhile, the Semenya camp has arranged for a cover shot of her dolled up as a girly-girl which -- for any of us who were forced into clothes that made us feel wrong, wrong, wrong -- is simply horrifying. Yes, she makes a very pretty fixer-upper as a "girl." But she is also very handsome the way she chose to be in the first place, as a no-nonsense, athletic, butch woman.

Defenders of Semenya argue that her privacy has been invaded, which is also so not to the point: gender is social, and a public matter, if it is anything. If gender were private, then we could all change our official documents at random and people with intersexed children wouldn't be told to "choose" as pediatric surgeons were standing by to sculpt a newborn's genitals into something that other people will be comfortable with. Indeed, the idea that not being gendered "normally" is a devastating public tragedy is clear from the response of those friendly to Semenya. Several supposedly sympathetic South African supporters have been quoted to the effect that the revelation of her "true" gender would not only be career-ending it would be life-ending: they have voiced fears that she might kill herself.

With friends like this, who needs the Australian press, I ask you? My old friend Tavia Nyong'o, over at Bully Bloggers has written a beautifully intelligent piece that asks whether, instead of obsessing over the naturalness of Semenya's gender, we might imagine "turning the question around and denaturalizing the world of gender segregated, performance-obsessed, commercially-driven sports, a world that can neither seem to do with or without excessive bodies like Semenya’s and their virtuosic performances?"

It is a very tangled web indeed, which grows all the more tangled if you consider --as Nyong'o does -- that had Semenya chosen to present herself in a "girly" way to begin with she might have been less vulnerable. We can't know that, of course, but there is a certain washroom logic to it (I am referring to the fact that any of us who confuse others as to our gender know that bathrooms are ground zero for the gender police.) Semenya is fast, but she certainly is not the fastest woman we've ever seen (although many of the fastest women later turn out to be hyped up on synthetic hormones), and she is twelve seconds slower than the fastest men. But no matter: it is appearances that count. And these appearances are carefully scripted for women: pony tails, pastels and makeup can accomplish a lot, as any drag queen could tell you. In fact, many female track and field athletes, tennis players, figure skaters and gymnasts, famous for their lack of breasts and ropy, cut muscles, would look like guys too -- or at least little boys -- if you gave them the right haircut and put them in a tee shirt and jeans. As proof of how easy it is to become a "normal woman," Caster's handlers in South Africa have done just that. You have probably seen the femmy makeover pictured on the right which gushes, "Wow, Look At Caster Now!" Because if she's on the cover of a women's magazine, dolled up like a woman, she must be a woman. Right? Can't fake that!

Uh huh. I am looking at Caster now, and whether she chose that makeover or not, it fills me with dread and sorrow. Because, short of a world where it is acknowledged that we have a right to choose our own gender, it will nearly always be women who are marginalized by these defining practices and, as many black South Africans rightly believe, people like Semenya who come from populations that are already stigmatized in some ways by their racial or colonial histories. A truly just society would simply allow people to compete according to ability, would not require from them as much as we do, and it would not ask them to perform anything as athletes but feats of speed, strength and skill.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.


Anonymous said...

Hi TR,

My lady reads your blog and shares topics with me occasionally. As a female athlete, coach, and someone who has been involved in women's athletics (and athletics as a whole) for many years, I appreciate how you have broken down this newest (yet also oldest) case of discrimination and forced compartmentalization. Thank you for talking about gender and sport, since often academia does not take on these issues - leaving them to the male dominated arena of athletics.

human said...

I enjoyed reading this post. You are right that this is 100% about what kind of body it is permissible for a woman to have, not about what is "fair." When I was junior high school aged, not long before I was forced out of playing soccer altogether (a penis being required equipment where I came from), a boy I had a crush on informed me in front of our entire class that he thought girls with muscles in their legs weren't attractive. I was proud of how I had made my body strong through hard work, and there was that little shit informing me I had made myself less valuable to him, and, presumably, to the world at large. I wish I had known better than to have my feelings hurt by that, but it's hard. This and other experiences led me to stop participating in sports or exercising at all and now I am in no physical condition to take it up again. I feel like something was taken away from me.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of people who haven't competed in athletics misread this situation, as athletics is not about performance but instead competition. This is especially true in running (and especially running in a championship setting) where it's about who you beat rather than the time you run. As such, this is story is entirely about what is and isn't fair in competition (a level metaphorical playing field).

It's important that we think about this not as an issue of gender, but an issue of sex. Sex is (and needs to be) the factor upon which eligibility in women's athletics should be based on. If you're not going to think about sex as the defining factor, than all meaning from women's athletics disappears, because if there's no women's athletics who cares who the fastest woman was since they all got beat by 3/4 of the men's field?

Considering all this, the reality that Ms. Semenya isn't entirely biologically female is important. I understand why you would make comparison to Naritalova, but this really is different because it's about sex. Think about everyone who races Semenya. Is it fair that they have to compete in a women's championship against someone who is in important ways biologically male? Really, it's not.

The current situation is additionally abhorrent, tragic, and unnecessary because South African officials have now admitted that they knew about the results of gender tests Semenya had taken pre-Berlin and buried the evidence ( I feel horrible for Semenya, but she shouldn't have been racing in Berlin in the first place. Semenya had a rough road ahead already (someone at some point was going to have to tell her what many already knew), and it's going to be far tougher now that this revelation has come out so publicly.

The takeaway: the whole thing is simply sad, but it doesn't mean that Semenya should be able to race with the women. It isn't a matter of race or gender that this needs to be the case, but simply a matter of allowing women's sport to remain meaningful (or even viable).

Anonymous said...

I'm increasingly suspecting that the gender segregation of sport contributes to the myth that all women are slower and weaker than all men, and that has major implications for patriarchy (not least because of the exclusion of women from combat roles and the ways that can be used to justify male privilege). I was trying to work out exactly how many (or rather how few) men are faster than the fastest woman in the world, and it turned out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. The structure of the Olympic 100m competition seems almost deliberately designed to obscure the massive overlap in the male and female bell curves for running speed. It creates a powerful (and false) impression by showing us a very small number of men in the final whose times are usually all better than the winner of the women's final. That makes it easy to wrongly assume that men in general are faster than women in general, even though the fastest woman can run faster than the vast majority of men in the world. If the competition was unsegregated women might not win very much (or at all), but we'd still get to see them beating some (potentially quite a lot) of men and maybe that would be an important difference.

(I know this comment buys into the false dichotomy of male and female, but I'm just trying to demonstrate another way that assumptions about that binary undermine themselves.)

Anonymous said...

And I should have added that the myth of female weakness feeds back into itself in some absurd ways which tie into your queer perspectives. Women are weaker than men therefore if a woman gets too good at sport she "obviously" isn't really a woman. And gender ideology contributes to the reality of the body as well as to perceptions of the body. Joshua Goldstein (who was the starting point for my interest in the gendering of combat roles and perceptions of male and female strength) pointed out that American men are on average bigger than American women at least partly because American culture encourages girls to eat to be thin and pretty, and encourages boys to eat to be big and strong. As you pointed out, a man who alters his body to be stronger is perceived as normal and a woman who alters her body to be stronger is perceived as a monster.

EC said...

@ anonymous 11:54. Whether you say this is about sex or about gender given the variation that occurs in human chromosome composition, genitalia etc it is still hard to say we have a definitive classification of who fits into what box.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, if a sexually "male" athlete decided that he was "female" in gender, would you be in favor of "her" competing against other "women" in the U.S. Open, Olympics, etc.? Would (s)he have "the right to compete" in this case?

Anonymous said...

This post completely ignores the legitimate complaint that her competitors if it turns out she has a pair of testes pumping out testosterone into her blood. Like it or not women are on average slower and weaker than men. This is why it is only women who fall under this intense scrutiny. The "female" category in sporting events should include only those who are women of the unambiguous nature, straight XX chromosomes with no testes, no penis! The reality is that almost everyone is unambiguously male or female. Those who fall into the ambiguous region inherit some of the "male" qualities that give them an advantage of the rest of the women. Do we really want a world where all the top "female" athletes have XXY or testes or whatever, i.e. are the "freaks" you reference?

Shawn said...

What an excellent and detailed post, thanks. I would appreciate any comments you might have on an article I wrote on the same topic:

Stop Policing Caster Semenya's Gender

Katrina said...

Your comments about the magazine photoshoot to "prove" that she is a "real woman" are on point. Prior to reading your post, I stumbled upon this spectacle, in which a male DJ in drag was photographed for a replica magazine cover, and people could vote on whether he was a "better looking woman" than Semenya.

Horrific doesn't cover it.

Katrina said...

Just correcting my last, the man in drag is not a DJ but a former professional rugby player.

infanttyrone said...

If gender is a primarily social and psychological phenomenon and sex is a primarily medical phenomenon, then in your:"...prompting an official scientific inquiry by the governing body in international track and field as to her "real" gender." shouldn't you replace gender with sex??

We are free to, as your old friend puts it....imagine "turning the question around and denaturalizing the world of gender segregated, performance-obsessed, commercially-driven sports, a world that can neither seem to do with or without excessive bodies like Semenya’s and their virtuosic performances?"

When I imagine this I see a world without financial support provided by equipment manufacturers and the other business interests that you seem to imply should not have deprived Billie Jean and Martina of their sponsorships.

As romantic as it sounds to decry the obsession for performance, obsess over performance is exactly what dedicated athletes do, even if they are in an obscure event that leaves them far from even a hint of an endorsement deal. They spend thousands of hours training and practicing just to become a little bit faster, stronger, or more skillful (it isn't a stretch to phrase their improvement goals in terms of your final sentence).

Commercial interests do not want to abandon gender segregation, as doing so would demotivate most of their female audience. Do you really want to have only one event each for, say, the 400 meter relay in track and field and swimming ?
Record books and medal stands would be populated overwhelmingly by men. And the TV commercial mix for the resulting viewership demographic... theory we could change ourselves into the "just society" that you propose. But we could also take it a step even further into libertarian athleticism by allowing any and all performance improving substances to be used. Or, if that's a little too open, we could have substance-free and substance-allowed categories. These would be easier to test for than the "how much of a what kind of woman" it seems that we're doing now.

Of course, if you have second thoughts about your ungendered, one-event-fits-all scenario, and if neither of my modest proposals for ultra-enhanced athletes merits even a first look, then we're back to, for each sport or for all of them, for each jurisdiction or for all of them, the question of what is female and what is male? We can get as sentimental as we want to about it, but someone else who is "in the business" will decide these things, probably along the lines of what anonymous describes, based on common sense and on input from other women athletes (don't forget the sports bureaucrats who are probably tied in some way to the corporate support structure).

Because, as the question from Jack Daniels Black points out, if men can get in touch with their feminine aspects and self-identify to compete as women in athletic competitions in your "truly just world", the temptation (as long as there is money in it) for the men who know they are very good, but not good enough to win, place, or show, to trade-down to the women's competition would be nearly irresistible.

This may reinforce the status quo, but it seems like a very solid reason to keep athletics as gender segregated as they are. Oh, and please don't posit the existence of a myth that ALL men are stronger, faster, etc. than ALL women. Even the most anti-progressive fundamentalist preacher knows this is not literally true. And if it's not literally true, rephrase it, OK. Thanks.

moonpie said...


I'm not sure your post makes much sense. Yes, the fastest woman in the world can outrun the vast majority of men, and yes the bell curves for the two sexes overlap quite closely. But competition (for better or worse) isn't about the middle of the bell curve. It's about the far end.

In the most recent track and field championships, all but 2 of 40 male quarterfinalists beat the female world record and all but 1 beat the best time in the women's final. Now best time in the female final was better than a number of the worst times in the male heats, but those men come from countries where it's easier to qualify, whereas the best women come from countries where sprinting is competitive, for both men and women, and where qualification would be very difficult. It's not a matter of women not necessarily running; the problem is that it would be very, very hard for a woman to qualify.

Anonymous said...

Gavin-- I have to agree with moonpie on this. For many years I competed as an amateur cyclist, particularly in cyclocross. I made it only as far as a Category 2 (out of 5 amateur categories, plus pros). Often there were not enough women to constitute a separate field, or even when there were elite and professional women competed in men's categories because the women's races would be too slow.

But, where did these national and internationally elite women self-select for their competition? Often in Men's Category 3. They could and did win these races, but simply put some of the better, even best women in the country, women who were making a living as bike racers, stood little chance at winning against the better part-time amateur men. Much less so against professional men.

The difference between elite/professional men's performance and Men's Cat 3 was an order of magnitude or more.

It may be that in some sports or disciplines there is more parity than in others, factoring together the relative importance and combinations of speed, skill, and endurance. But, male and female world records across the board in cycling, athletics, swimming, etc. don't lend much credence to the idea that we would advance women's sport by re-merging it with men's.

In fact, I think it would ultimately undermine the advances forced on the sports world by Title IX if we diminish the distinction.

What does this mean for women like Semenya? Well, it means there will be tragic stories out there. If the reports are true that Semenya's blood serum levels of testosterone are elevated many times higher than the established parameters for women athletes in Olympic sports, it is hard to imagine how it would be fair for her competitors for her to compete. I say this because her advantage is not an advantage induced by training. Other who pursue this same advantage do so at the risk of a doping infraction. The ranges of acceptability are set artificially high to allow for several degrees of standard deviation.

There have been a number of instances in the past of intersexed people, identified intersexed people, competing in the women's field. There are rules governing this, including for individuals who have undergone sex reassignment surgery. So, I don't think it is as simple as saying that Semenya isn't female enough looking, or that the IAAF or Olympic movement is categorically against chromosomally intersexed individuals (XXY, for example).

Ultimately, the whole situation is just tragic, and I feel for Semenya who is having to publicly live out a controversy that wasn't of her own making.

infanttyrone said...

Up there...what those two said!

We can wish for and work for more truly just social arrangements, but we can only wish for a more "just" is, as Bowie sang, "immune to your consultations"... that is, unless you want to start injecting supplemental hormones into competitors who would be at a natural disadvantage...sort of a reverse of how they handicap lighter and faster horses by weighing them down...or you could just weigh down people like Semenya, but that would look so very wrong...

Tenured Radical said...

I don't want to spend much time in responding to a bunch of different issues, but I would like to point out that many of the comments contain statements that are conventionally unquestioned but are not true.

First of all, it is not a "tragedy" to be intersexed, hermaphroditic or transgendered; nor should it be humiliating to anyone who is; nor should blurring the lines of sex or gender be cause to debar a person from any form of human activity.

Second, what constitutes a "male" or a "female" body is up for debate among those who really understand the issues at stake and know what they are talking about; furthermore both "women" and "men" have great ranges of testosterone and estrogen in their bodies. Personally, I think it makes as much sense to bar from sexual intercourse those people who can no longer achieve an erection without being medicated: oh yeah, except there's no money at stake, is there? So maybe those are "normal" male bodies after all, even though they have run out of testosterone!

And no commenters who see Semenya being barred from competition as the only solution have thought seriously about why it is only *women* who are scrutinized by gender testing.

Horace said...

In response to this last question, TR, why men are never (rarely) called under scrutiny for mis-genderedness (a terrible term I have just made up) is that this gender disciplining often happens much earlier, but in equally persistent ways: in gym class, on the playground, etc.

When boys take on (or exhibit, depending on your perspective) "feminine" qualities, part of the public performance of femininity (the outward markers of gender performance) subjects them to intense social discipline--the kinds of playground cruelties that are almost commonplace. The sports arena becomes a deeply hostile place, and accordingly few sexed males who identify as feminine, who might be visibly identified (erroneously or not) as "wrongly" gendered never make the playing field at the highest level.

Now, of course this is written into the social text that imagines "feminine" as weaker, and reveals the deep sexism that underlies sports. But we also might look to alternatives in queer culture that celebrate embodied performance in ways that remain outside of the patrio-capitalist world of competitive sports: drag, fashion, dance, theatre, etc.--all popularly imagined as queer dominated spaces.

That is to say, I think part of the reason that no one questions male athletes for gendered identity is they regardless of an "actual" identity, whatever that may be, competitive athletics themselves privilege masculinity in their very terms. So as long as athletes uphold those terms--by competing in socially sanctioned ways--we'll never see anyone asking for gender testing for a male athlete. This very social prejudice is precisely why there are so few queer male athletes come out while still competing (there are some cases where players will come out after retirement). Because most sports themselves are so deeply hetero-patriarchal in nature that to acknowledge queerness is to challenge the very foundations of those sports.

In team sports in particular, it's the same prejudice that has been marshalled against GLBT persons in the military. It's galling and tragic, but to dismantle it, we'd likely have to dismantle "sport" as we know it.

Tenured Radical said...

Very intelligent Horace. Very.

infanttyrone said...

"Tragedy" occurs twice (well, three times now) on this page. Once in your original post...once in your comment.

In the original post, your basis for using the word seems to come from "the response of those friendly to Semenya".

In your comment I think you are preaching *against* a choir here that probably agrees with what you probably believe (that being intersexed SHOULD not be a tragedy), but probably does not agree, along with "those friendly to Semenya", with what you wrote, which is that it IS not a tragedy.

The debate regarding what constitutes "male" and "female" bodies exists among more than whatever population you wish to characterize by "those who really understand the issues at stake and know what they are talking about", which has a whiff of exclusion about it.

Whether you think they know what is at stake and know what they are talking about, it is obvious that the bodies that regulate sports competitions are very much having this debate now. They probably will have to decide to exclude some "women in gender" based on some aspects of "male" sexual biology. As Anonymous points out, how else can the rights of other women to a fair competition be secured? You certainly would not seriously consider sports based on either of my Modest Proposals (and neither would I, which I hope is obvious).

Anonymous, who I gather would be, perhaps reluctantly or sadly, in favor of banning Semenya from competing as a woman (assuming the newspaper's scoop story's facts are correct...and if I'm jumping to a wrong conclusion, I'm happy to be corrected) wrote very clearly to the point you say nobody has addressed:

"Like it or not women are on average slower and weaker than men. This is why it is only women who fall under this intense scrutiny."

I'm not sure I agree with banning Semenya, but primarily because I'd like to reserve the chance to disagree in case the regulating body devises some rule(s) I don't agree with. But, she probably will be banned. I think I have thought as seriously as necessary about why only (some) women are challenged about their sex (not gender). Gender testing is accomplished by written or oral communication. Sex testing is done in a medical setting, sometimes requiring radiology or blood testing. The reason even amateur sports (as for the pros... fuggedaboutit) do not allow self-identification BY GENDER is that they don't want to have to deal with the lawsuits filed by obstreperous, unambiguous males who were excluded from competing even though they claimed to have a female gender.
Before you say this is impossibly over the top speculation, run it by a law professor, or just a lawyer.

As per your own Modest Proposal, well of course there is quite a lot of money at stake, but maybe you were being Swiftian. I do understand how, as someone with greater than average sympathy for someone in Semenya's situation, one natural reaction (among many) is to find some other group (however deserving) and wish that you could spread the pain around to them. But maybe you were just being Swiftian.

As Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson used to say, "I'm just askin'"

Dan said...

How about this as a model:

Create two classes of competition, one that is restricted on the basis of a particular threshold of testosterone (replacing what has until now been labeled "women"), and the second that is open to every athlete regardless of gender (replacing what has until now been labeled "men").

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that Semenya being intersex is a tragedy, I'm saying that she had to go through the ordeal of finding out she was intersex on an international stage due to the greed of South African officials who could pre-empted the entire spectacle by explaining the situation to her before she went to Berlin is a tragedy. Very, very different.


Lurking Biologist said...


It's not as simple as testosterone levels. If the testosterone receptor is not functioning properly or missing, the cells won't respond to the circulating testosterone, and the XY individual will appear, and believe herself to be, female. (internal testes, blind vaginal pouch) This may be the case for Semenya.

Another way of putting it -- if your body can't hear the signal, you are immune to testosterone poisoning, no matter how much is there.

infanttyrone said...


I don't know nearly enough physiology to know if your idea is too simple, too complicated, or just right from a medical point of view.

If your model were of enough interest to enough sponsors, I'd watch and try to buy what they were selling between heats, within reason.

But I suspect pitching (as in Hollywood, not the Dodgers) this idea to whoever is sponsoring the Olympics on TV would be a very tough sale, so I'm not optimistic.

I assume Anonymous knows the facts and that with respect to testosterone levels:

The ranges of acceptability are set artificially high to allow for several degrees of standard deviation.

So, my guess is that from what we believe to be true right now, Semenya would probably exceed your threshold and be forced to give up the game or compete against mostly dangling participants.

Finally, mistake in not remembering that Anonymous closed by saying that "...the whole situation is tragic..." When I checked for "tragedy" I overlooked searching for "tragic". I suspect that most of us feel sympathetic toward Semenya and believe the whole situation should not be tragic. But based on the reports from her supporters, it seems that she has in a wholesale way bought into the old, restricted society- at-large rubric of sex, body type, and acceptable gender identity that TR, human, Gavin, Horace, et al., have commented on, this wholesale buy-in being the source of much personal suffering, so that however much we wish it was not a tragedy, it stubbornly is.

As sad and frustrating as this situation is, it would certainly be nice if Semenya were the last person caught in this whirlpool.

It would also be nice if we all woke up and realized that both terms of George Bush's presidency were a collective nightmare engineered by malevolent teen-age space aliens.

Better odds on the first scenario.

dance said...

Thanks to TR and commenters for excellent discussion.

I think I'm late (TR, I hear you can set Blogger comments to show date as well as time), but one of the few articles I read on this recently showed Semenya being very proud in herself regardless of external labels, which was reassuring. I do think anyone having to undergo worldwide public discussion of something as fundamental to her inner self as gender qualifies as sad and unfortunate, if not tragic.

Anyhow, tangents:'s mainstream online-only Page 2 (more opinion, less news) did put forth the anti-binary gender view, so that's very optimistic. I did not read the comments.

TR, I keep noticing (twice) that SI refers to the horse Rachel Alexandra beating all other horses of her "gender" (not sex), and thought that might interest you.

Anonymous said...

TR "have thought seriously about why it is only *women* who are scrutinized by gender testing."

Yes we've thought seriously about it. In sports requiring speed and strength men have, on average, a biological advantage,which is why these sports are segregated and which is why Semenya's competitors have a right to feel aggrieved if she has male sex organs.

Reverse the situation, imagine a man with an ovary. Are his fellow men going to scream foul and ask for medical tests? No! Why? Because there's no evidence having ovaries gives women an advantage. If such a sport came into being, and women had natural advantages, and men who were part women wanted to compete then I suggest there would be gender testing the other way.

infanttyrone said...


There you go being logical...again e2!

You win a copy of " 'A Man With an Ovary is Like a Fish With Solid-core Tires', T-shirts You Didn't See in the '70s Because Half of Us Were Too Wasted to Think Them Up", just out from XY-Didn't I Think of That Press.

Anonymous said...

Real intelligent commentary infanttyrone. Let me sum it up in words you understand. Men are faster and stronger. Therefore men don't care if men who are "part women" compete against them. Women however are at a huge disadvantage competing against other "women" who are part man, for instance having a pair of testicles. This is why gender testing only happens to women, it's not a vast right wing conspiracy as TR imagines.

infanttyrone said...


I'm pretty sure I understand everything you have written in commenting on this post.

If you haven't detected that I agree with you in almost everything I have written here, then maybe my writing isn't clear. Sorry if that's the case.

I hope my last post was seen as a take-off on the old standard of "A woman w/o a man is like a fish w/o a bicycle". I used a man w/o an ovary (your example of a competitive non-advantage)to replace the first ratio and gave the fish something related to its classic bicycle, but something of a non-advantageous accessory.

And I hope you realized that the "half of us too wasted to think them up" in the '70s were men (XY-Didn't I Think of That didn't seem subtle when I wrote it).

And the problem with "There you go being logical...again" is what ?
If I had an emoticon to signify sincerity I'd have used it. The "e2" meant "exponent 2", or squared, which was intended only to emphasize that you had been (at least in my estimation) quite logical in the multiple comments you had made. If any of that seemed like sarcasm, again, I'm sorry.

I agree it's not any vast right wing conspiracy, just athletes (current competitors and former ones who have moved into administrative positions), fans, and businesses, all of them doing what they can do and need to do to make the sport(s) as worthwhile as possible for each of them.

If there are other passages in any of my previous comments that seemed to be in less than general agreement with or support of your own position(s), please let me know what they are. If I did intend to disagree with you I'll confirm it, and if I meant to agree with you, I'll re-analyze what I wrote...and apologize in advance for giving you the wrong impression.

canonball said...

I do want to debunk something that I don't see being talked about in this situation enough--the concept of having a "biological advantage" and that being a reason that sex is a disciplinary category/divider in athletics. Lance Armstrong, for example, has a biological advantage in that his heart is larger (I think), but as this is not an issue of sex, it's not considered a disqualification. Athletics is largely all about biological advantage. It's interesting that we've decided that sex (or being intersexed) is a basis for throwing out biological advantage.

Anonymous said...

Uh canonball do you have an alternative to suggest? The only one I see is to just make every athletic event open to all, and eliminate the opportunity for most women to compete.

Unknown said...

Especially in the shorter races, the top women are running times that would be good for boys in high school, and decent for slower colleges.

Once you get into longer races the gap is smaller. When Paula Radcliffe set the world record in the marathon she was the fastest British Runner. The American Record holder (Deena Kastor) could have run in the Men's Olympic Trials. In Ultra Marathons the gap is even smaller.

That said, from the little I know and if I am wrong I would like to know, I don't think Radcliffe, Kastor, or Palema Jelemo (Olympic Gold Medalist in 2008 with a time 2.7 seconds faster than Semenya) have had their gender questioned.

There were questions about Semenya's gender before the World Championship. For whatever it was based on, it was not solely performance.

It is tragic that anybody is in Semenya's situation, with people threatening to take her medal away like a cheat when she didn't break any rules, but the system is designed as women and not women.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It is interesting that magazines about celebushits are called things like "You" and "Us".

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