Speaking of Women's Rights: Who decides?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Who decides?

The first question asked about most of us – before we’re old enough to answer it ourselves – is “Is it a boy or a girl?” People expect a straightforward answer. For some, though, it’s more complex.

Caster Semenya ran an astonishingly, gold-medal-winningly fast race at the world track and field championships. Now her gender is being called into question, and the International Association of Athletics Federation is performing gender testing to determine if Semenya is eligible to compete in women’s events.

The IAFF has an interesting opportunity here. If Semenya turns out to be intersex , or have a genetic condition like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, they could take a strong and public position of supporting intersex athletes – it would be an insanely powerful example to set for the global athletic community.

Not that that would fit in with their gross history of performing mandatory invasive gender tests and revoking medals from athletes post-test. But we can hope. At the very least, we can hope that they own up to their often icky role in policing gender norms. And that they continue to evolve in a positive way: gender testing is no longer mandatory, and psychological counseling is offered to athletes who are tested.

And what does a gender test tell us? Not much, it would seem. Genes, outer appearance, and behavior don’t always align in strictly male and female categories. A person with the genetic characteristics of one sex can look and act and be raised as a member of the other sex. And the “be raised” part is critical – gender socialization starts in the delivery room, the moment someone says “It’s a (boy/girl)!”

For many of us, it really is clear and easy. But what if you are born with characteristics that make you hard to label? Semenya’s story suggests a head-spinning number of possible answers to “Who decides?”

  • You*
    I.A.A.F. officials and South African track and field officials had agreed that it would be too much to ask of an inexperienced teenager to field questions about the gender issue from the news media.

    *You can’t speak for yourself when you’re a baby, so you probably won’t get a vote until later on. Or possibly you are a young athlete who suddenly finds herself on trial in the court of public opinion, and maybe at age 18 you’re not about to get on the international stage and defend your gender to the whole world.

  • Your family
    "She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times," her father, Jacob, told the Sowetan newspaper. "It is God who made her look that way," said Semenya's grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala, who helped raise her.

  • People at school
    Semenya's tale begins with a tomboy who always wore pants to school, didn't mind playing rough, and endured plenty of taunts from the boys she regularly competed against in a poor village 300 miles north of Johannesburg. The head of her secondary school thought Semenya was a boy until Grade 11.

  • Fellow athletes
    “These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

  • Athletic officials
    "They're judging her based on what?" asked South African athletics federation president Leonard Chuene. "Who can give me conclusive evidence? I want someone to do that."

  • Doctors and scientists
    Dr. Peter Bowen-Simpkins of the UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists told CNN: […] "This South African athlete couldn't have AIS because her problem is that it is suggested that she looks rather male, she's got a big jaw and has very little breast development, but so many athletes are like that, "

  • Scholars and experts
    Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University said in a telephone interview. “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. Sports require that we do, but biology doesn’t care.