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Caster Semenya and (Fe)Male Athleticism

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When Caster Semenya won the women’s 800-meter title at August’s world championship in Berlin, people were blown away. She won by 2.45 seconds, finishing the race in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds. In running, those 2.45 seconds are amazing, at the very peak of female performance. (The women’s 800m world record is 1:53.28.) Instead of celebration, Semenya was met with questions. How could a teenaged girl improve so much in so short a time? Was she, gasp, a man?

As a society, we don’t question when male athletes improve rapidly and amazingly. And if we do question, we ask about performance enhancement drugs, we test, life goes on from there. He is innocent or he is guilty, but he is and remains male. Not so for Caster Semenya, whose improvement prompted a series of humiliating demands and displays based on how society thinks women and men should look, act, and achieve. She was tested to prove or disprove gender, and, worse, those supposed results were leaked to the press, putting what should have been a private medical condition on public display. Then was the interview and photo shoot for a South African magazine where Semenya was feminized via clothing, hair, and makeup in order to conform to society’s female norm.

There’s a base assumption here that women cannot achieve or make great leaps in achievement without being male or infringing on male domains. When Caster Semenya approaches the women’s 800m world record she is nearing the peak of what women have achieved–of what we know they can achieve–and her gender is questioned because of it, not because of the achievement, but because it is female achievement.

They say Semenya is intersex, having no ovaries but internal testes. They say this, as well as her voice, her appearance, and her athletic talent make her a man. I say Caster Semenya is whoever she wants to be and that women can achieve and excel just as well and as often as men, and that when they do their gender should never be in question.

The International Association of Athletics Federations will rule on these tests and Semenya’s status in the athletic community in November.

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Written by tldegray

October 19, 2009 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I am a Trans-Guardian for the transsexual community, and occasionally for the intersex community. And often fight for the due rights of these woman, and men, who suffer, or who has some type of non typical related sex-gender condition. Many times in life it’s not the actual condition that is the problem, but how the public perceives and reacts to such conditions, even just when they “suspect” that one is not “fully” born one sex-gender or the other.

    I do not bring a preconceived idea to what is right in this case, and hope my analysis is complete enough to draw to it’s own conclusions. And to get you to think through the various key concerns, and draw your own conclusions.

    Quite often the “perceiver” is the true problem, not the person with such birth related un-average characteristics (mind or body related). And often those perceptions and reactions are based on pure prejudice, person insecurity, fear, hate, and their concepts of what is “normal” and “acceptable” in their own minds. And rarely are such birth traits truly relevant/critical to the observer (they just “think” it is, or worse pretend it’s their business), whether or the job or to perform the task at hand.

    At times, surprisingly enough, those “untypical” traits often give the TS/intersex person a positive advantage in life, which is a good thing in their normal lives!…especially given the many possible drawbacks they face.

    For example, myself being a post TS woman, at 5’9″ as compared to the average woman’s height of 5’4″ that is taller than “average.” In my own life being a bit taller than average (in the top 5% of woman) does had disadvantages (harder to buy off-rack clothes) and reversely some useful advantages: can reach kitchen cabinets easier, washing my truck (makes reaching the top of the cab much easier), and even looking more attractive (5’9″ has been deemed “most attractive” height for a woman in one study). So does in general being TS does have advantages and disadvantages, and those are mostly my personal concerns, as I’m not trying to set some performance records, or a medal.

    In the great majority of situations these typical issues should be addressed and resolved in favor of equal treatment without regards to sex assignment at birth, or intersex status. But what about when the TOP performance of a group is at stake? (male and females group) Can we truly, and fairly say, that the BEST woman/man in a sport is a clearly an “inter-sexed” individual? Much less a “transsexual” person, who was physically one sex but mentally the other, and changed their body to match their mental identity and truer being.

    Physical differences are in everyday life RARELY of true significance in one’s ability to carry out responsibilities, or to perform key tasks, or should be held against an individual…for doing TOO good. So generally sex-gender basis as a GROUP is less important than that of the particular individual, and whatever the case of birth…the final result is what’s important to the person who values the performances/outcomes (employer for example).

    In general life, we rarely have pure situations where sex-gender based differences are good grounds for differentiation (even mentally) and practical-based divisions (such as public bathrooms), and whatever advantages one can bring to the table should be welcomed and valued. After all the outcome benefits not only themselves but other was well (job, society, family, etc).

    In today’s times it’s really more about “mind over matter” since we are no longer living in an caveman type environment but advanced tool-assisted society, at least in most of the world. Our minds matter more than physical matter in the great majority of jobs today. So any physical differences can often be overcome by skill training and experience to reach a satisfactory level (after all what’s the other 95% of the population to do if only 5% is deemed “good enough”?) And very few contacts we have really has little vested interested in such small performance differences (birth or otherwise), to the personal biological level. Then only to those with a strong “need to know” or “discernment” basis (maybe your family or doctor has such “need-know” status). And it’s more a personal concern, not a public one.

    And the same ad/disadvantages exist for most woman my “taller than average” height, of which there are many such woman above 5’4″ height (it’s only an “average” after all). Nature gave some key variations to us (born woman and non-natal ones) that don’t clearly define us as woman or men (non-critical factors). We have some overlapping traits between the sexes, and which affect us in similar ways. The critical factor is not so much a single variance, but the grouping of numerous key untypical sex-gender traits (the “and” factor….taller “and” more narrow hipped “and” longer arms, etc.).

    So if there was a competition for “truck washing” should I be banned because of a sex-gender overlapping trait with men (taller than average woman), when other woman (born woman) of the SAME height and reach be allowed to compete? What if the sex gender differences happened to be MORE in favor of the natal-woman?, And had more natural advantages in total? When, and where, do we “draw the line” in making such determinations?

    I believe that there are very FEW life areas where gender-sex discrimination is justified (the general “perceive differences” not improper division idea) is appropriate with regards to birth sex, or biological differences due to inherent sex differences. When do we go “off the scale of acceptance” – inclusion? Most people would concur , I believe, that IF a woman can do it, or a man, then let them do it!…assume a level playing field and let the best man/woman win! Thus we have woman in construction and men as nurses these days (even if against the norm or stereotype) and we fight for their right for individuals to show that their performance is the ultimate criteria, not some inherent trait, even if their group in general is advantaged or disadvantaged. But what about when performance ability is generalized to an entire category of persons?..whether male, female, TS or intersex? Why one situation is different from the next?

    However, in the circumstances where it’s a public competition, and divided by a person’s “sex” (male or female), and where there are generally clear advantages of being male or female…in that particular sport, and furthermore contains a public investment in the events, THEN that which has been private in life, may be deemed significant, and affect an athlete’s qualifications to participate. Then the governing body has greater cause to gather further certainty of the qualifications of the person in question, which in other life circumstances would be considered invasive and pure discrimination. And this situation, is in my view, is one of those rarer “need to know” cases, and is past time for the Olympic Governing Body to review it’s sex-gender policies and relevant guidelines of sex-gender distinction in various sporting events. But can “one size policy fit all” sports?? No!

    It’s when the criteria becomes “the best of the best” is at stake in pure performance terms, and the rules allow for key groups to be separated based by their particular general ability level of their group/sex that the issue of birth sex-gender is allowed to become an issue, or point of forming rules.

    But even this line of thinking is flawed in some sense, since now we have African Americans dominating many fields and track events, so in response should we not also divide out Whites from Blacks, since as a group Blacks often clearly have distinct advantages? Just as woman might wish to exclude TS/intersex as unfairly advantaged, could not “white” athletes also claim “blacks” have an unfair advantage due to birth variances?

    Why is one group allowed to claim “unfair advantage” over very rare individuals, yet another category of person types (gender and now to race), not be allowed to claim the same nature based disadvantage in competing in a sport? Why would a rare occurrence (intersex/TS) be a big concern be a REALLY big deal, WHEN a much larger group, such as the white group, not claim the same inherent disadvantage to Blacks…or visa versa? Hummmm…got you thinking a bit?

    In society, most of the time, precieved and effective differentiation is due to pure dislike, disdain, disregard of personal identity, and power play (resentment by one sex-gender for intrusion of another category in a male/female dominated field). And often an objector can be defined by someone with an agenda besides the criteria of mere performance of the tasks required to obtain an adequate result. And perhaps here is the gem of truth and relevancy here…in society the criteria is “adequate performance” versus in sports the “very HIGHEST performance.” BUT only when it’s deemed that the participants (athletes in this talk) are on a fairly EVEN playing field, and only varied by what nature has given that person, in combination with their training and mental stoutness. Drug enhancements are “out of bounds” as they are not nature given benefits.

    But when nature gives a person some added sex-gender benefits that exceed some predetermined threshold of “normal variance” then that’s when there is deemed to be “nature’s unfair advantage” even if that person is a woman/female in normal social life. Is not such a line of determination more than a bit arbitary?…especially when the top althetics are by nature “un-average? Is it some exact measurement, or the number or type of variance that is the main criteria? Or just a general physical-gender appearance that is mostly applied?

    Track and field, especially running, DOES has substantial differences between male and females in general, due to hip structure/size, and leg angle (tilting inwards) and more (strength and stamina), and evidenced by the typical achievement levels in the sport (the recorded outcomes become “self evident” of a relevant sex-difference, to work backward compared to physical-forwards evaluations).

    Whereas the better female runners do tend to have more “male like” physical traits (taller, more narrow of hips, etc) they are the woman who, by normal/typical nature, have those less common and more male-like traits, just like for many sports the best athletes tend to have certain physical qualities more like the “opposite sex” due to normal sex-variances (even if are at the top 1-5% of the population of that sex for those particular traits).

    If you think of the population of male and females in term of people-pyramids grouped by any activity or sport, the fewer “better”ones near the top have more of certain characteristics in general, depending on the particular sport’s requirements for best performance results. And often times those are the persons who in fact are more similar to the “opposite sex” then their own sex. Basketball is a clear example of this, as being taller and having more running/stamina is clearly more male-like traits. Just look at the bodies/faces of many of the taller female athletes and you will quickly notice how much more “male-like” they appear to be then the average woman. In fact, we can ask “what made them this way” as they physically developed, and became “untypical” females? How much of those traits were due to less female and more male type hormones in their bodies as they grew up, or have today?

    Doesn’t having such male-like characteristics give THEM an unfair advantage over more “normal/typical” woman as well? I would suggest….clearly those traits do! Maybe a fairer way would be to divide up the basketball leagues would NOT be by sex-gender… but by height! Say all under 6′ in one league and all over that benchmark in another…regardless of sex-gender! And BTW if a woman wanted to compete (say a tall well muscled & skilled player) wanted to play in a man’s basketball league, would she be denied the “right” to do so? And at what level of play (school/professional) would that discrimination be allowed?

    Nature gave her an “unfair” advantage over typical other female-woman, so shouldn’t she be banned because they were very likely male hormone induced? (note that “all” people have some hormones of the opposite sex, but for most people is fairly minor, but important, amounts in their system. What about taller woman who play volleyball, another sport that favors taller woman? Then the basis for division and qualifications to play lies somewhere past being “not typical” since non-usual is often the norm for high performing althletes, of either sex-gender.

    So the often assumed key questions aren’t so clear-cut as they may first appear. But exactly where are critical differences, and why do as assume they are the true points of discernment? And where do we draw the relevant lines of inclusion or exclusion for players? Or sports divisions in general?

    Simply divisional/exclusion rules tend to fail when the premises for them is either faulty in general, or encounters cases that the rules do not easily fit. And it’s in these case situations where both aspects, general and for the individual, that may call for a review and predetermination, relevancy, and application of such rules for the sport, and for individuals.

    We must first acknowledge that CERTAIN sports are so physical-trait driven that those with those traits DO tend to have a CLEAR advantage over those who lack such traits (or have less of them), and are often sex-gender based. There is a process of higher “natural selection” governed by success rates,, so the proof is, initially at least, in the results-pudding for overall results (note groups of scores/results here). The concept of “equal performance and equal pay and equal treatment” comes up against the reality of proven differences, and notable variances in performance in general. We, in life, tend to promote “equal opportunity,” “no differentiation” based on race/gender/sex because it is prejudijical, and often irrelevant, even where by non-nature there is some social induced differences in general.

    I think there is a real fear for society-discrimination based activists to feel threatened by anything that smacks of biological based differences, and performances, as these may be precieved as a threat to their social changing causes (woman’s rights, racial rights, TS/TG rights, gay rights, etc). But the reality is that there are arena’s of relevancy for even biological differences, and what may be applicable and useful bio-basis of differences, should not be presumed to be applied in a universal manner in society, including rights and job opportunities. There will ALWAYS be those who either are outside the typical norms, or in between them in some way when comparing one group to another, or have rights that supersede group/type divisions, in the name of fairness, and sometimes to tilt fairness in favor of the individual over general group norms.

    So what may seem unfair to an individual in a non-life dependent construct (like professional sports) may well be inappropriate in general life and basic life rights, especially where such it may give an individual an “unfair” advantage over others in a group, and where that group (sex-gender) has valid grounds for making such distinctions, i.e. to compete where such non-typical traits are significant, and outcomes are important. In these cases, the social-fairness standards may warrant being over-ridden by the category/event interests, i.e. to over-ride issues of individual equality and “rights” in favor of fairness and group cohesion of the matter at hand, such as a sports type or event.

    And clearly some types of sporting events DO GIVE a natural advantage to one sex or the other, so that opening up an event to ALL of the other sex would give the “superior” bodied sex, in that one type/event, TOO MUCH of a natural advantage, thus making it nearly impossible for the disadvantaged sex-group to compete on an equal basis. which in effect makes it a male or female dominated event and really calls for making it an “open sexed event” not having dual sex-based events, i.e. only a single non-sex divided event(s). This would basically deny that birth sex is a significant factor, or advantage or disadvantage to those in that sport, whether right or wrongly based on scientific fact or support.

    But in this “intersex” situation,and personal case, we hear the argument that by allowing this individual compete in their “apparent sex” and “social gender” as a woman/female gives them an unfair advantage in that sport, even though nature….not man (no sex-change in order to fool the public/officials) created them that way. But then again it’s nature that gives some woman, or men, a clear advantage over others in competing in that sport, often based on non-usual gender influences. As a rule, taller woman do better in basketball then shorter ones, and some of the tallest woman players are taller than some professional male players, just to mention one trait. But we still divide out basketball players by sex-gender because in general men have more of the physical traits that give males a clear advantage to females in this sport.

    Now here’s the kicker to all this…what about in another sport (say snowboarding) where gender is not relevant, or nearly as so, the would they be held to the same level of “pure sex” as in other sports? One “rules-size” rarely fits all sports, or life activities, equally regarding sex-gender.

    I AGREE it would be unfair if ALL men/woman, or intersex, were to be allowed to compete in the “other” sex-gender competitions…. but is that aspect the critical question here? I would first acknowledge that NO!…in many cases physical sports SHOULD be divided by sex-gender,and that “cheaters” should be prohibited and banned when discovered (fake TSers that only do so to get a physical advantage in that sport, as has occurred at times).

    But the critical questions here, where there’s no competition motive going on (like for the true TSs and intersex), so to WHAT EXTENT is there a clear bio-basis ADVANTAGE for sex-based differentiation-advantage in that particular sport? And how SIGNIFICANT is it for performance in general? And finally how so for an individual to compete? (before and after taking hormones if so). Is a uniform “general policy” (no “other” sex competitors in sex-divided sports) always applicable to the individual level, where one may or may not have the critical advantageous traits of their “other sex” based traits? Let me offer a personal example before attempting to address these key issues for high level sports games.

    As a post-TS for many years, I’m a tennis player who at 5’9″ tall plays fairly well, but am dwarfed by both of the Williams sisters who are around 6′ tall, and they are more muscled and skilled at this sport. No doubt they would have beaten me badly, both now and back when I played at a younger age in “male mode” in college. So back then and now today should I be allowed to compete against other woman in my own age bracket?…at either the amateur or even professional level (if a professional level even exists for those over age 50). My main “advantage” over other woman is my skills that I developed, not my innate minor male-enhanced moderate height given that female hormone intake has basically “leveled” the playing court in muscle and stamina regards. And on the court, where by nature and natural sports-achievement selection, MANY woman are around my nature-based height, and some are taller in fact, especially at the professional level.

    Should I be banned, at any level of play of tennis, just because of a narrowly defined “only born woman” or “born man” criteria that is simple to create, and semi-simple to enforce (the simple crotch-check or internal organ exam). The problem is once you go past that simplistic level to hormones levels and gentics and natural hormone levels, then it should and MUST apply to all woman….or men, in order NOT to discriminate against only those who for one reason or the other, show a tad more of the “other sex-gender” traits. However, whatever is good/critical to do to one individual….should be enforced against all players/althletes in that sport, in the interest of fairness and equality. When all players submit to the same standards and tests and are treated equally with regards to those outcomes, then that is the right balance between individual, and the rights of a group.

    Being singled out, on the basis of the “preception” of one’s gender is in fact discrimination, since that is pre-judgemental and discrimination. Create universal testing criteria and apply it early…to all, or give up the right to single out and test any individual with belated sex-gender allegations. If this had been done earlier on this individual woman, then this very public intrusive issue, and public embrassment could have been avoided to begin with, so to exam her now and let other woman with higher levels of male hormones in their bodies, or growth hormone admiralitives go unexamed is what is pure discrimination.

    The natural high achieving althlete, by nature, is untypical and to some degree un-natural, and sometimes it’s ONLY in the althletic world that their untypical traits are deemed benefitual to them. Just ask any tall woman basketball player if not for basketball, they wouldn’t prefer to be a bit shorter and more typical height for woman! However, with maturity for one’s individuality, one begins to accept, and even PREFER their more diverse differences. So the question remains, just how different and diverse do we allow un-typical and un-natural of woman, or men, do we not only accept, but approve and cherish in our sports today, where the un-typical is more highly valued?

    To draw some artifical line that says “this is TOO untypical” is difficult indeed, but we still ask…where is sthe right line in the sand of competition and fairness to be drawn. We drew such lines in terms of un-natural drug performance enhancing drugs, as it should have been done, but where along the line of sex-gender, even if naturally occuring variance of human occurance, do we draw this line?

    This relevance factor is indeed a difficult line to draw, but one thing for sure is we should NOT base it on social agenda goals (“pro” position) nor on knee-jerk “queer” reactions (“con” position). Instead it should be based on bio-performance realities, individual vs group balance for the particular sport, and individual fairness considerations (test one person versus all… type of considerations).

    Unfortunately the relevance of sex-gender CANNOT be universally applied, or in simplistic criteria, as each sport has it’s particular level of sex-gender based influences. For some sports/events such factors might be inconseqential, for others of some minor concern, and for some of major impact. For the Olympic Board where to draw the line that would fairly apply to ALL Olympic sports will be difficult, but it seems that they have been willing to give some thought and due considerations to many factors. Only when they announce not only the deciding basis and ruling in this particular case, but any revisions to their overall sex-gender policy will we be able to see where they drew the line in the sex-gender sands for their sports.

    In this case of Semenya, with so many male-like traits and internal testes, the likely outcome is to be a ban on her competing in woman’s sports, at least in the Association of athletics Federation events. I can’t say I could fault them if they do ban her from competing in this particular woman’s sport. However, if doing so,then the key question becomes in what sex category, and sports, would she be allowed to compete? Would she be allowed to go over and compete with men in her track events? I would hope this would be possible (not as a “man” but an “intersex” allowed to compete), since banning her from competing in BOTH sex-based sporting events would be very unfair, and downright wrong! Or is the Sports Federation going to create a “third sex” category of “other” sexes? (intersex, TS and any other “un-typical configeration of key sex measurements). And hopefully the same criteria, and testing, will be equally applied to ALL men and woman, like with dope testing. Otherwise that is discrimination, and stereotyping.

    But whatever the outcome, there should be no need to feel the likely “ban” implications should be carried over into regular life outside of sports, nor feel their actions threaten typical TS/intersex status in society. Nor some discrimination against woman’s rights. Keep their decisions in due context of sporting events and nothing more.

    Meanwhile I’ll be playing tennis, and hope no one points me out to be tested, or have to answer questions to what are now clearly private matters. If so….I won’t mind.

    Trans-Guardian Alliance


    November 10, 2009 at 8:46 am

    • A 4,100+ word comment for a 340 word post—I’d say your analysis was most thorough. Thank you for sharing your own experiences as a post TS woman and for opening up a perspective on the transsexual and intersex communities for any others who read here.



      November 10, 2009 at 10:12 am

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