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Sex and the Sprinter

Caster Semenya bends the boundaries of gender

By Courtney A. Fiske

“Caster Semenya forced to take gender test, is a woman…and a man,” a September headline of the New York Daily News declared. Four months after the initial eruption of controversy surrounding Semenya’s gender following her spectacular eight-second improvement at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics, the jury is still out: Is the South African runner a woman… or a man?

Posing the question makes one uneasy, and for good reason. More than Semenya’s frustrating evasion of traditional gender categories, this query threatens to transform Semenya from a human being into a circus sideshow—the freakish object of our scrutinizing gaze. In the majority of modern linguistic systems, to be genderless is literally to become a thing—to morph from a comfortably defined “he” or “she” into an anomalous “it.”

The very idea that a person could wake up one morning, only to find that she is not what she thinks she is, is horrifying—the Gregor Samsa epiphany that everyone hopes to avoid. Tropes of metamorphosis pervade our collective mythologies, from Ovid’s tales to Hollywood blockbusters. Robert Pattinson’s attractiveness notwithstanding, the modern-day vampire fetish speaks to our cultural fascination with figures who move seamlessly across boundaries: schoolboy by day, blood-sucker-cum-ascetic by night. We may laugh at the episode of “The Office” in which Andy questions his heterosexuality due to water-cooler gossip, but the same scenario is playing out for Semenya in real time.

The International Association of Athletics Federations has declared that Semenya can keep her gold medal from the World Championships but has refused to opine on her eligibility for competition as a woman. Armed with what it claimed were leaked medical records, Australia’s Daily Telegraph reported in September that the runner had external female genitalia but lacked ovaries and uterus and had undescended testes that endowed her with testosterone levels three times as high as her female competitors.

If the IAAF has been wishy-washy on Semenya’s case, it is because it does not have an answer. The federation lacks a codified method for sex determination, which, per its policy, is nebulously ascertained through the amalgamated opinion of a panel of medical “experts.” Confronted with a question that verges on the rhetorical, the IAAF appears to have adopted a “what you see is what you get” strategy—one that has utterly failed to rationalize the subtle gradations of biological sex.

South Africa’s complex legacy of apartheid confounds the impasse. Exclusionary schemes of categorization have plagued the nation’s history, beginning with the Population Registration Act, which enjoined census-takers, by and large white, to segment society into three classes—white, black, or colored—that in turn dictated an individual’s access to political, social, and economic entitlements. Highly arbitrary and highly racialized ascriptions of identity haunt the African continent at large. In Rwanda, ethnic identity cards, issued by Belgian colonial authorities, helped to rigidify the social hierarchies that culminated in the 1994 genocide. Impose a gendered hierarchy on top of these devastating imperial bequests, and it’s easy to see why Semenya’s personal story has become eminently political, provoking the South African sports minister to declare a “third world war” should the runner be banned from competition.

Feminist theory has long touted the distinction between sex—a biological given determined by inchoate mixture of genetics, genitalia, and hormones—and gender, a cultural construct into which human beings are socialized. Socioeconomic developments, along with the LGBT movement, have attenuated the original binaries, which clearly mapped man and woman onto masculine and feminine, and superimposed heterosexuality over both. Yet, while stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity are no longer firmly en vogue (at least in liberal political circles), the sex binary has rarely been interrogated. American society, in fact, is organized around this dichotomy, from the seemingly prosaic decision of which restroom to use to weightier issues of legal rights and marriage.

The division between man—penis, testosterone, XY—and woman—vagina, estrogen, XX—occupies the status of the taken for granted in our cultural imagination. Yet, when asked the question, “What is the essential difference between a man and a woman?”. neither the IAAF nor society at large can provide a straight answer—especially when confronted with a figure like Semenya who appears to toe both sides of the line. Science, it seems, is not the be-all-end-all of this battle: External genitalia can be ambiguous; hormone levels vary from person to person; and men can have two X-chromosomes, while women can have only one. Semenya remains an uncomfortable ellipsis, interrupting our sexual binary.

The biological and the social are intertwined in such messy ways that the gender-sex distinction seems to perpetually collapse on itself. Feminist thinkers who famously eschewed sexual essentialism, such as Simone de Beauvoir, upheld at least a specter of determinism in practice. Medical authorities, too, have not determined how to handle people who fall outside of science’s neat dualism. The sheer array of terms for these unclassifiable cases—hermaphrodite, intersex, disorder of sex development—is baffling. Disparaged, whether rightly or wrongly so, with charges of political correctness, this terminological deluge speaks to a deeper problem: Language itself fails to accommodate the ambiguities of sex, gender, and everything in between, incessantly insisting on fitting square pegs into round holes.

In destabilizing the sex-based division of sports, Semenya has destabilized the way in which we understand sex, gender, and ultimately ourselves. At core, Semenya’s quandary underscores the problems inherent in ascribing identity. In matters of bodily classification, who should have the final say? The individual, medical experts, an international athletic bureaucracy, the government, popular opinion, or a farrago of all five? The answer, at least in Semenya’s case, has been a long time coming.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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