Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shame on Who?

Caster Semenya, an 18 year old track star from South Africa who won the 800 meter race in Berlin in August has been the object of intense media scrutiny ever since she ran. Not because she outran her competitors by a few seconds, but because the sports world has been weighing in on whether it is fair for her to run as a woman.

Caster is intersex. Some 0.5 to 1% of the general population is thought to have characteristics that are intersex. In Caster's case she has typical-appearing external genitalia of a woman but the internal gonads (sex organs) of a male and therefore produces testosterone and not estrogen. This explains her flat chest, her deeper voice, her facial hair, and maybe her muscular build (she also works out and trains a LOT to get that body). As hard as it is to make the mental leap to understanding that sex is not necessarily a binary, either-or phenomenon, we must stretch our minds and get educated. It is not ok to sit back and pass judgment or gawk at a variation of nature. Semenya is different but she is not a freak and she is not alone. As Lisa Belkin blogged in the New York Times, we need to tell our children about this; it's a matter of tolerance.

I believe Caster when she says that she just learned about this from the media and the recent tests that the International Athletics Associations Federation have put her through. I believe her father that he thinks of her as a girl. I believe the reports that she has withdrawn and is depressed over having her life and gender identity exposed publicly. For gender identity is something we each decide for ourselves;no test can make that choice;it is a psychological phenomenon. Usually gender identity is in harmony with one's body as it most likely was for Caster until she entered puberty and developed external male characteristics.

What I have trouble believing is that no one in a professional capacity--counselor, coach, physician, nurse--ever questioned the pubertal development of Caster. By most standards a young woman without a period by age 16, who was developing hirsutism and had no breast development deserved an evaluation. If that evaluation was done and not shared with Caster in the most competent, delicate, compassionate and informed sort of way, well shame on them!

Because someone did not do his or her job with complete competence, this young woman is having her body dissected on the world stage and in the blogosphere and her achievements diminished by sceptics who do not understand the science behind it all. Let's keep the legitimate debate about athletic competition separate from the discourse about Semenya's sex.

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If this piques your interest and you want to read a moving novel, extremely well researched and written of the life of an intersex adolescent, try Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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