Semenya’s Race and Sex Struggle

Results of the gender investigation aside, Caster Semenya’s humanity has already been sacrificed to Western culture’s desperate, frightened effort to maintain the fiction of binary, fixed gender.

South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates

What stood out most as Caster Semenya faced reporters at last week’s track and field world championships was that she’s just a kid. Baby-faced and leery, she parceled out answers to ostensibly innocuous questions. “What was your running background before this year?” But a more insidious query lurked for the teen: What kind of freak are you, anyway? That’s the real question the world wants South Africa’s new star athlete to answer.

The International Association of Athletics Federations has demanded Semenya, who won the 800-meter gold last week, submit to a sex test; bookies are taking bets on the results. But whatever the IAAF’s shameless doctors conclude, the verdict about Semenya is already in—she’s a monster. What remains is to determine what type of monster we’re gawking at. A hermaphrodite? An intersexual? A genetic boy whose parents raised him as a girl? Or just a mannish woman, after all?

If “science” concludes the latter, Semenya can keep her medal. Her humanity, however, has already been sacrificed to Western culture’s desperate, frightened effort to maintain the fiction of binary, fixed gender.

The spectacle began in July, when Semenya, a newcomer to international competition, won the African Junior Championships. IAAF noticed that she’d shaved more than seven seconds off of her best 2008 time, and the feat triggered fears of performance-enhancing drugs. But then they thought of something far more ominous—perhaps Semenya’s gender is all screwy.

It’s important to note that no one believes she has masqueraded as a woman. Rather, the hypothesis is that she’s been confused her whole life. “Clearly it was not her fault,” IAAF spokesperson Nick Davies told the BBC, in speculating about what it’ll mean if she fails her gender exam. “It’s a medical issue. … She was born, christened and grew up a woman.” She just might not be one, at least not by IAAF’s standards.

So now she must endure a stunning battery of tests, stretching far past a mere dropping of the trousers. Davies explains: “There is chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans. … It’s very, very comprehensive.” Gynecological investigation? I mean, really?

Many observers, including Semenya’s mom, have called this absurdity racism—white folks imposing their self-centered notions of femininity, once again. See under, Michelle Obama’s arms and the Williams sisters.

That may be true, but there’s more to this than race. After all, Semenya’s South African defenders seem most appalled by the assertion that she’s not adequately gender normative. “You denounce my child as a boy when she’s a girl? If you did that to my child, I’d shoot you,” raged Athletics South Africa President Leonard Chuene, who has left the IAAF board in protest.

But the reality is that Semenya may be neither “boy” nor “girl,” or could be both. And who cares? It happens. Our social certainty about the male-female divide is not supported by biology. As Northwestern University bioethics professor Alice Dreger told the New York Times last week, “As I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ”