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Caster Semenya: Part 2b of the Women Athletes series

Before we head on the the subject of Trans women athletes, lets go back for an update on Caster Semanya.

At the beginning of this controversy, Tami asked the question What do women look like?

You magazine answered Dressed Up. Madeup. Heels. Wearing stereotypically feminine clothes. Softened. Muscles carefully hidden under stereotypically feminine clothes. And flowing hair. Don’t worry guys! Now she looks just the way society expects! Calm down now! Hair or no hair, however, even if makeup and all the other effort, her strong facial features were not “feminine enough” for some commenters. Many people tried to insult her by saying that she looked like a trans woman. News flash, trans women ARE women, and for the 10000th time, women have a wide variety of features, and there is no right way to look like a woman! I saw way too much of that piece of ignorance, so I’d like to link Transgriots piece I Repeat-Quit Using ‘Tranny’ To Insult Cisgender Women from Tami’s blog post to deal with that nonsense straight up.

Yesterday, unfortunately, Ms. Semanya’s day got worse. Delux brought this pair of stories to my attention:

Report claims 800m world champion Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite: The results of a controversial gender test on the South African athlete Caster Semenya have been received by international athletics officials but will only be made public after they have been analysed by experts and Semenya has been informed, according to reports.

Semenya has male and female organs: Extensive physical examinations of Semenya, 18, had shown the athlete “is technically a hermaphrodite”. According to medical reports she has no ovaries, but rather internal male testes producing “large amounts of testosterone”.

Now, the first thing that smack one right between the eyes is the use of the word “hermaphrodite” to describe her. Almost all the articles use it, and I heard a BBC reporter using it today. This word is inaccuarate, outdated and offensive. Its is a definition that sprang from a medicalizing mindset from the 19th century that basically saw intersex people as deformed and in need to fixing so that they could adhere to the “proper” gender binary. And this stuff is not arcane knowledge either. These reporters have access to the same damn google that I used. Hell they could have looked at some of their peer newspapers, who were using the correct terminology. And ANY amount of googling on the issue would have brought you sooner or later to the Organization Intersex International which has websites in a good number of the world’s most popular languages. But nooooooo. Make it scandalous! Sell papers! Everyone loves a good sensational story! And to hell with making her a freak in the eyes of society! Who cares we got advertising to sell!

And then there was the second thing that shot me straight into RAGE territory.

See the Guardian had quite an interesting sentence here:

The results of a controversial gender test on the South African athlete Caster Semenya have been received by international athletics officials but will only be made public after they have been analysed by experts and Semenya has been informed, according to reports.

but will only be made public after they have been analysed by experts and Semenya has been informed, according to reports.

Hold, WHAT? Who the HELL was that IAAF employee/Medical doctor that carried out the test, whoever it was that leaked this info BEFORE SEMENYA WAS INFORMED ABOUT THE RESULTS?!!?!?!?! What the HELL??? What the … is the excuse this time? I mean, last time it was, “oh I sent he email to the wrong person, silly me”. And this time? What the fuck is it this time?AT least the IAAF’s president seems to wanting an investigation into the leaks that lets the entire world weigh in on her medical info before she even gets to be informed about this herself! But damn it, I LOVE the whole, it ain’t my fault tone in this article

But sports lawyers said that it would be difficult for the South African authorities to mount a case against the IAAF. “There is a general duty of care from a governing body or international federation to the athletes they represent. She could argue that they have broken that duty of care,” said Mike Morgan, a solicitor in the sports law practice at Hammonds. “But you’re talking about a South African athlete, an organization based in Monaco and leaks that occurred in Berlin and Australia. Once the dust has settled, I think they will realize it would be difficult to bring a case.”

Yeah. Yeah. See, somehow I have this nasty feeling. If this athletes were a white European or American? I just have this nasty feeling that these countries would be leaning on the IAAF to be just a bit more successful than that in making sure that heads rolled for the utter disrespect and cruel, inhumane manner in which Ms. Semanya has been treated. For daring to run fast.

An Intersex Perspective on Caster Semenya points out, among other things:

One depressing sideline of this insistence that Caster must have a definitive dyadic sex is the regularity with which the term “pseudohermaphrodite” is raised by detractors. I’ve posted on how this term emerged in Western medical science to try to define away the existence of intersexuality ( see here.) Basically, in trying to erase the challenge intersex people place to the medical ideology of sex dyadism, doctors in the 20th century decided to call all intersex individuals who did not have ovotestes as their gonads “pseudohermaphrodites,” no matter what their anatomy or experience. Somebody can be raised female, with average-looking genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts, living a typical valorized heterosexual life, femme as can be (housewife, reader of romance novels, cookie-baker), yet all unaware, have internal testes and androgen insensitivity syndrome. If she goes to a doctor for treatment of infertility, suddenly she’ll find herself labeled a “male pseudohermaphrodite.” The medical term defines her as “really a man,” not even intersex, let alone a woman. Anyone with testes is “really a man” according to this scheme of classification–which reveals the sex politics and semantics in supposedly “objective” science.

Those same politics emerge from the mouths of Caster’s detractors. She is a “pseudohermaphrodite,” they claim–not a woman, not even intersex, but a man trying to cheat honest female competitors.

Here’s an irony for you. According to Western medical practice, the majority of infants discovered to be intersex are assigned female. This is done for surgical convenience (it being considered easier to remove an “inappropriate” penis than create an “appropriate” one), and due to a covert assumption about gender psychology, that women can deal better with gender ambiguity than can men. So we’re assigned female, told we are “really women,” subjected to mutilating infant surgery, expected to identify as female, not intersex, told to keep our medical history, if we know it, a secret, and sent out to live dyadic female lives. Many of us carefully live by the rules. But it turns out that if we do as we are told, we are still subject to being outed, discredited, mocked, and returned unceremoniously to the status of intersex oddity, as Caster’s life illustrates–accused of breaking the rules.

What Caster’s situation illustrates, from an intersex perspective, is that we exist. Dyadic sex is a myth–sex is a spectrum. Hormones, chromosomes, genitals, gonads–they are all arranged in many complex ways, and imposing a binary onto them is arbitrary. It’s as arbitrary as saying all fruit is either sweet or sour. Sure, ripe cherries are sweet and ripe limes are sour, but most fruit gets its savor from both tastes, and some fruits balance at the tangy sweet-and-sour midpoint. You can measure all the fructose and ascorbic acid you want, scientifically. You can create a rule that divides all fruit into sweet and sour categories using precise measurements of sugars and acids. But that will not eliminate the fact that the experience of tasting fruit is complex, and that this complexity is what makes eating fruit delicious.

By the way, a commenter last week asked me if gender testing in the Olympics is over. The answer as the below essay makes clear, is, for the most part.

The Rise and Fall of Gender Testing: How the Cold War and Two “Masculine” Soviet Sisters Led to a Propaganda Campaign

Myron Genel, MD, was one expert who became convinced that gender testing was a joke. In 1990 he and others accepted an IAAF invitation to get together for a workshop on “femininity verification.” Later Genel wrote in Medscape Women’s Health: “Our group concluded that laboratory-based sex determination should be discontinued…The purported rationale is to detect male imposters who would have an unfair competitive advantage. In point-of-fact, genuine imposters have not been uncovered; however, gender verification procedures have resulted in substantial harm to a number of unassailable women athletes born with relatively rare genetic abnormalities that affect development of the gonads or the expression of secondary sexual characteristics.”

In 1992, as a result of this study, the IAAF defied the IOC and stopped gender testing. The Commonwealth Games and various sports federations followed suit, as did the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and other medical bodies. But the testing juggernaut rumbled heedlessly on. At the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, there was a cumbersome DNA screening process for 3,387 women athletes, that proved to be vastly expensive for the Games. Eight women were red-flagged, then further scrutinized and discussed — and allowed to compete.

Finally, in 1999, even the IOC’s own Athletic Commission went to the executive board and demanded that testing stop. Testing was suspended on a trial basis for the Sydney and Salt Lake City Games. But the IOC hasn’t abandoned the old ideology. It reserves the right to re-apply the much-discredited test in any individual case that is brought to their attention. Meanwhile, on the U.S. political front, gender realities continue to be ignored by many conservatives — as in Texas, where the 4th Court of Appeals ruled in 1999 that only couples with standard XY and XX chromosomes could be married.

But at the latest Olympics Beijing Officials To Test Female Olympic Hopefuls For Sex Abnormalities And this is after they cause a scandal at the Atlanta Games They disqualified 8 women, who appealed and were reinstated. Seven of them were intersexed. Also, The Confederation of African Football (CAF) Initiating Gender Testing Before 2010 Africa Women’s Cup

The Women’s Sport Foundation Gender Testing – Gender Verification at Elite Sports Competitions: The Foundation Position

And dutchmarbel over at Alas a Blog has one more intersex athlete to add to our list: Dutch sprinter Foekje Dillema

Finally, because I keep seeing this. The news stories state that she has three times the normal amount of testosterone in her body. Please note that this does not necessarily mean that she has any advantage over other athletes. Many intersex athletes that have that amount of testosterone also have. This does not necessarily mean she has an advantage. Many intersex athletes with extra testosterone also have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which makes them unable to use it. She wasn’t winning in world record time. Non-intersexed people have and can beat her. With that in mind, can we PLEASE remember that we are talking about a human being, an 18 year old athletes and not social monster?

Next wek, we will finally get around to trans women athletes. Laters!

13 thoughts on “Caster Semenya: Part 2b of the Women Athletes series”

  1. nojojojo says: They made it public before they even told her. Bastards. I wonder if a civil lawsuit will work if the South African government can’t do anything.

    Editing quibble — your story is basically posted twice; it starts repeating about halfway through, around the words/link for Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.

      1. unusualmusic says:

        Thank you very much. I totally missed that. And thanks for the tagging and stuff too. I keep forgetting those.

        1. unusualmusic says:

          That reply should have gone to you, angry black woman:) And thanks for noticing, nojojojo.:)

  2. Kanika says:

    Leaking one’s confidential medical records w/o the patient’s consent is against the law in many countries (not sure about South Africa though) & I hope that Semenya and her family gets a good lawyer and sues the pants off the IAAF & the media sources that reported this info.

    Unfortunately no amount of money can repair the damage that was done to this young girl…I’m so disgusted by the media’s lack of moral boundaries.

  3. Justine Larbalestier says:

    What you all said. It’s SO enraging on every front. It’s hard to even know where to start. But thanks for pointing out that elevated testosterone levels are not necessarily an advantage. There are many super testosteroned men out there who can’t run anywhere near as fast as Caster Semenya or any other top female runners.

    I really love the fruit analogy. Because it’s so true.

    (Also what Nora said about the repeating text.)

  4. Legible Susan says:

    Manual trackback: I linked to you from A new blog to read; updates on ongoing discussions

    I’ve seen some vile comments about this elsewhere. Thank you for all your hard work.


    Watching athletics over the years, there have been many women who looked questionable. How typical the black woman with natural hair and a flatter chest than most would get singled out.

    It’s sad to see her posing on a photo shoot with ‘feminine’ hair (longer and straighter), make-up and a dress. Why can’t women have muscles and be strong like men? Not all of us want to be dainty princesses waiting to be rescued.

    I’ve been mistaken for a boy once, and it knocked my confidence. I can’t imagine that happening in front of the entire world.

  6. Rob Hansen says:

    At the very least, whoever leaked those results should lose their job. In a just world, they should also face criminal charges and be required to pay Semenya substantial damages, and there should be a public apology by the IAAF. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a just world.

  7. Samantha Vimes says:

    One thing that makes me rather angry about all this is knowledge of my own biology.

    I’ve got ovaries and a uterus. But those ovaries, if not quieted by The Pill, will produce male-appropriate levels of testosterone. I have broad shoulders, facial hair I have to control to avoid embarrassment, and develop muscle tone fast. So if the intersexed women have physical advantages over ‘average’ women, so would someone like me, who would surely pass the sex test. (I’ve probably also got excess estrogen as I have an almost cartoonlike hourglass figure.) And average people aren’t the top athletes. Some have long legs, some have low body fat, some probably have bodies that are better for storing and releasing energy for marathon running and distance swims. So they are singling out just one kind of physical quirk as a disqualifier when everyone else is allowed the natural advantages their own body gives them.

    1. bethrjacobs says:

      Good work

  8. Nentuaby says:

    Argh, yes. I twigged on that same line in the Guardian article. Just… Appalling.

  9. bethrjacobs says:

    Three time the rate of testosterone but still normal range for women…And the other chicks I’ll bet are feminized by birth control pills added estrogen and progestin.

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