Saturday, August 22, 2009

Caster Semenya - An Intersex Perspective

Controversy and a lot of prurient interest exploded into the news this week when South African Caster Semenya outran her competition in the 800m world championships by a more than two second lead, only to be accused of cheating by being intersex. As an intersex person following this story, I've felt . . . well, largely appalled by what spews from the mouths of competitors, sport officials, news commentators, bloggers, and eyebrow waggling, head-shaking people on the street. It's hard not to feel depressed encountering innumerable snarky statements such as this one: "South African runner Caster Semenya (hehehe...she has semen in her name...hehehe) won the gold in the women's 800-meter at the World Championships in Berlin last night, but officials may snatch (peen, I mean, pun intended) away her victory if it turns out she's really a dude." (That one can be found here, if you're really inclined to read it.) So I wanted to share my perspective on this story. I do apologize to Caster for joining the pile of people giving her no privacy, but as the media are overflowing with details of her life already, I at least wanted to step in to defend her.

The basic outline of Caster's situation, as best as I can understand it through news reporting which is mediocre at its best, is that she was born intersex, assigned female sans surgery based on her predominant genital appearance, and raised as a girl. However, like lots of us whose genitals are visibly intermediate, she grew up knowing she was not a typical female, which liberated her from gender conventions. She was a classic tomboy, refusing to wear dresses and competing with boys in sports. From what I can gather from the news, Caster did not, however, question her female sex assignment, only gender role limitations. An excellent athlete, chances are that she was defined by her physical abilities, as are many tomboy athlete girls with typical female anatomy. When she began to compete in major sporting events, her status as a woman was questioned, and Athletics South Africa "cleared her," declaring her female. Now that she has proven her remarkable running ability on an international stage, her international competitors want her disqualified for "cheating" by not "really" being a woman. The International Association of Athletics Federations has stepped in and is investigating her status, in what most news sources are oddly calling "gender testing." Generally, the news media assume that they will be able to issue a definitive answer on what her "true" (dyadic) sex is.

The main thing that saddens me about this story is the emotional tone of the commentaries. Other athletes, people on the street, and low media blogs are full of sneers and winks and nosewrinkled disgust. The major media bring in scientists and voice patronizing sympathy for how humiliating this must be for Caster, meanwhile capitalizing on the prurient interest in the story to gather viewer attention. Underneath it all is a widespread impulse to yank down Caster's pants and let everyone have a good look. It's a freakshow, with an intersex person the object of millions of prying eyes.

Some basic themes that will be familiar to anyone intersex arise over and over in the news coverage. There's ignorance of the very existence of intersex people, evinced in frequent speculation by laypeople that Caster must have had a sex change or engaged in doping. There's confusion of physical sex with gender identity, with detractors, including some of Caster's competitors, referring to her with male pronouns and speaking disparagingly of her butch appearance. There's racist scientific hubris, with Western sports scientists asserting that they can determine Caster's "true" dyadic sex after doing an exhaustive investigation of her chromosomes, hormone levels, anatomy, gonadal tissue, and psychology, while speaking derisively of the ASA's investigation as being unsophisticated. And most of all, there's the overwhelming belief in the myth of dyadic sex. Caster must be female or male; intersex cannot exist as a sex category.

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.

Given that sex is a spectrum, and that some of us live near its center, being obviously intersex, society needs to deal with us in better ways than by denying our existence, hiding us medically, and then reasserting our existence to disqualify us from participating in sports. And let us acknowledge that this disqualification is based on the insulting assumption that "real women" are categorically inferior to "real men."

Really, what Caster's case makes us consider is the strange fact that athletics are divided along dyadic sex lines. Sensibly, if one is looking at any particular sport, advantages exist according to physical distinctions--tall, long-legged people do better as hurdlers, for example. But millions of female-assigned people are taller and have longer legs than a typical male-assigned person, so why is gender and not leg-length used to create categories of competitors? There are significant differences in average height by race/ethnicity--would you therefore suggest that we divide people by race for sports competition? That would be no less arbitrary than dividing competitors by gender, though today it would be much more controversial. A much more sensible approach would be to create competitor classes by relevant physical category--as weightlifters are divided into weight classes. Then the question of "true" dyadic sex would be as irrelevant as the question of "true race" for athletic competitors.

My heart goes out to Caster Semenya, an intersex sibling caught in an impossible position--required to live in a dyadic gender, and then accused of wrongdoing because the assignment suits poorly.