Katherine Franke’s article was originally published at the Gender and Sexuality Law Blog of Columbia University Law School.
As many will recall, the gold medal performance in the 800 meter track competition by Caster
Semenya, a South African athlete, last month at the Berlin World
Championships, sparked a “sex panic” when some observers questioned
Semenya’s “real” sex.
Well, things have turned a troubling corner in
this matter this week. An Australian newspaper reported today that Semenya’s “gender verification” test results revealed that she failed the female sex test.
That is to say, the results are reported to show that her body does not
fall within the prescribed definition of a woman for competitive
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I put the issue this way for a reason – failed the female sex test – because the International Association of Athletics Federations’s (IAAF) gender verification policy
applies only to women’s events. Their testing is not designed to
determine an athlete’s “real” sex, but rather seeks to discover whether
a competitor such as Semenya is “enjoying the benefits of natural
testosterone predominance normally seen in a male.” In essence, to
pass the test the competitor must show “female levels of testosterone” (my term).
Mind you, not all athletes in women’s track meets have their testosterone levels tested. The
IAAF ceased routine gender verification testing in its events in 1991,
and now forces a competitor to undergo such testing only when a
challenge is brought by another competitor or a “‘suspicion’ is raised as to an athletes’ gender“.
In this case, Semenya looked “too masculine” and a suspicion was
raised. She tried to fix this problem last week when she underwent a
makeover to “feminize” her look and posed as a covergirl for South
Africa’s You Magazine. But this performance came too late. Suspicions had already been raised.
In the end, the nub of the matter, really, was that she didn’t run
like a girl – she ran too fast to be a real female. It would have
been highly unlikely that “gender verification testing” would have been
ordered if she’d finished with the back of the pack. In this sense,
Semenya shares something with Oscar Pistorius who, aided by two prosthetic legs, runs too fast to be human and was disqualified by the IAAF from competing in the Olympics.
Castor Semenya has reportedly gone into hiding now that the results
of her “gender verification test” have been made public. Her athletic
career has likely ended (unless she is willing to undergo transgender
surgery, in which case, ironically, the IAAF will allow her to compete)
and the public humiliation and ridicule she may suffer for being an
“hermaphrodite” and not a “real woman” are likely to be crushing.
Recall that when Santhi Soundarajan underwent a similar public inquisition several years ago she attempted suicide.
We would be all well advised to pull Donna Haraway’s Cyborg
Manifesto off the shelf for a re-read. Haraway’s groundbreaking
deployment of the “cyborg” challenged naturalist and essentialist
notions of “real” women and “real” men by exposing the ways that things
considered natural, like human bodies, are not, but are constructed by
our ideas about them. These legally and culturally enforced notions of
normality are enforced even in a case such as Semenya’s whose body and
capacities are absolutely part of the natural variation of the species,
but who is rendered unnatural and abnormal by virtue of a test that
arbitrarily locates her outside the domain of “real women”.
To those of you who say: “I don’t think it’s fair that someone with
such high testosterone levels be allowed to compete in the women’s
track events. What’s to stop men from competing in these events and
winning all of them?” I have the following answer: Then don’t call
them women’s and men’s events, define the events by testosterone levels
– those with levels up to some ceiling run in one event, those with
higher levels run in another event. Collapsing “female” and “male”
into testosterone levels is both bad science and bad social policy.
Sexual categories are, after all, social and cultural categories, not
all have a stake in Caster Semenya’s ongoing treatment. That
suspicions about how she looks can lead to having her identity as a
“real” woman publically revoked communicates a clear message to all of
us who consider ourselves female: Don’t talk too loud, don’t throw a
ball too well, and don’t look too comportable in pants or walk with a
“masculine gate.” And whatever you do, don’t look too triumphant when
you run really fast. The gender police are out there looking for you.
One last thing: for accurate information on the definitions of,
incidence of, and “treatments” for a range of intersex conditions, go
to the Intersex Society of North America.