Semenya's Race and Sex Struggle

Illustration for article titled Semenya's Race and Sex Struggle

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.’ ”


Children are routinely born with cellular variation on the XX and XY chromosome sets that define boy and girl status. Hormone levels vary, too, as do the secondary traits we associate with a given sex. People have large, protruding clitorises; scrotums divided such that they look like labia; inactive hormone receptors and on and on. Anywhere from 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 2,000 births require specialists to assign a child’s sex, according to the Intersex Society of North America. After these assignments are made, cruel plastic surgeries to “correct” perfectly natural physical variations are often performed for no medical purpose whatsoever. Kids are mutilated to ensure they fit comfortably inside our mythical gender boxes.

We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re man-made, and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place.


Semenya is hardly the first woman—notably, never a man—forced to undergo sex testing to compete in amateur sports. From 1967 to 1999, all female Olympiads were forced to take versions of the test. The phantom menace of men gaming the system to compete as women never materialized, but athletes were nonetheless routinely deemed to have insufficiently pure femininity. Eight women were barred from the 1996 Olympics, the last at which the tests were used, the Los Angeles Times reports.

But the tests are, of course, rigged—because witch hunts always produce witches. That’s the point. Which is the real tragedy of the IAAF’s attack on Caster Semenya. Whatever the doctors determine about her biological sex, at the young age of 18 she’s already learned that she’s a social monster.


Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer.