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August 26, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Female?

You may or may not be following the news stories about South African runner Caster Semenya. After the 18-year-old Semenya won the 800 m. in the 2009 World Championships in Athletics with a time of 1:55:45 - the fastest time of the year - suspicions of her gender were raised. The International Association of Athletics Federations conducted a gender verification test in the weeks before awarding her the medal. The IAAF claims that they do not suspect cheating, but wanted to determine if she had a "rare medical condition" that would give her an unfair advantage. (They also claimed that they would not necessarily withdraw her medal if she "failed".)

This is just another sad case of what happens when a female player is just too good... There are obviously sexist and racist implications to this situation. How could a woman be that good? She doesn't look feminine enough. A lot of it is probably jealousy: Elisa Piccione, the Italian runner who finished sixth behind Semenya, was quoted as saying "for me, she is not a woman". Have they also questioned the genders of silver and bronze medal winners, Janeth Jepkosgei (Kenya) and Jenny Meadows (Britain)?

Semenya's case brings up the deeper question of what is really required in order to call yourself "female" in today's world of athetlics?

We're not sure what actual methods of testing the IAAF uses, seeing as sex and gender are so complex. According to one analysis of the case, it would take a combination of internal medicine specialists, gynecologists, psychologists, geneticists, and endocrinologists to make a definite determination.

There's the obvious distinction of genitalia, but a number of conditions can cause someone to appear female but have a biological makeup that is more "male" (or vice versa). Sometimes genitalia are ambiguous. There is the question of hormones. Recent tests indicated that Semenya's testosterone levels were higher than "normal". (This doesn't necessarily mean she isn't female, nor does it mean she cheated by taking hormones or performance enhancing drugs). Then there's the issue of genetic/chromosomal sex: XX is "female", XY is "male". There are also rare cases in which a person may have XXY chromosomes: People with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome may be chromosomally "male", but were unable to respond to androgen in utero and therefore developed as "female". (Athletes with AIS are permitted to compete as "female" in the Olympics because the condition isn't believed to give any competitive advantage).

Then of course, there's the social construct of gender. I think it's important to remember that Semenya is a woman, regardless of what the sex testing may reveal. Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa said, "Let me warn professors and scientists that the only scientists I believe in are the parents of this child. [...] One scientist from a stupid university somewhere is going to erase the entire life of this girl."

The Olympics and other sports organizations have begun allowing transgendered athletes to compete, but intersex people are still put in a tricky situation if they want to compete in athletics. For one, there's the issue of how much of an advantage does one's gender make-up actually contribute? If being intersex does give a woman an unfair advantage against "normal" women, then who is she supposed to play against? Men? Other intersex women? No one at all?

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