My friend sent me a link to a story on ABC News about a gold medal runner whose sex and gender identity is being questioned. It seems that Caster Semenya is too fast, too strong, and has too deep of a voice to really be a woman. Now she has to undergo gender verification tests to prove that she is, in fact, a woman. I had several reactions to this piece, so bare with me.
First, let's take a look at intersexuality. For those of you who aren't aware, that's when a person's biological sex can't be neatly categorized as male or female. The reason for this might be related to the person's anatomy, genetic makeup, hormone level, etc. I won't get too into this aspect because I'll be here forever. I will say that I am often surprised that people don't realize just how common this is. I once said to a group of friends that biological sex is not absolute, and even that has variations. They responded with something to the effect of "there aren't tons of people running around with penises and vaginas" and I said "no, probably not, but they might have XXY chromosomes or androgen insensitivity, and so forth" and they gave me completely blank stares. Education is your friend, folks.
So anyway, getting back to this particular issue. I once read somewhere (this was back in college, so forgive the lack of citation) that the number of people with some sort of sex ambiguity increases over time because as researchers find new conditions, people who might not have been considered intersexed at one point would be considered intersexed now. Furthermore, sometimes these conditions don't even appear until adulthood.
What does that mean for a field that's segregated by gender, such as sports almost always are?
What do you say to somebody who is living as a man or a woman (because in our society, you must choose one) but is either knowingly or unknowingly intersexed? Too bad that you've been training and competing your entire life to be at the top of your sport... But now that we know you're not what you say you are, your dreams and accomplishments are completely down the drain.
I also want to add that the language used throughout the article bothered me almost more than the issue itself. I took issue with this sentence in particular:
Officials fear that she may have a condition where she is "intersexed," meaning that she may suffer from a hormonal imbalance that could give her an unfair advantage.1) If she is intersexed, there is no need for quotation marks. It is real. We know you didn't just make it up on the spot. 2) If she is intersexed, she's not "suffering" from anything. She is living as a person who is intersexed. She's not going to drop dead tomorrow because of this. Who the hell are you to say if she's "suffering?"
Somebody is also quoted in the piece as saying:
"This is the kind of thing that sullies not only the reputation of an athlete and a country if true, but also the sport itself."Excuse me?! A person's biological identity is somehow hurting the sport?! What?! That shit doesn't even make sense! If anything, it's the other way around -- the rules of the sport are hurting somebody. The fact that this could possibly be framed the other way shows just how long this road ahead of us is.
- At Thu Aug 20, 01:45:00 PM voz said...
The discursive framing always puts the burden on the person who is crushed by society's fetish for rigid, separated sex categories. The impulse is always the same:
The heretic must be destroyed at any and all costs to maintain purity of the system.
rather than face the ugly truth: There are no pure sexes, only socially approved ones.
- At Thu Aug 20, 02:24:00 PM frau sally benz said...
WORD! I have nothing to add to that really cuz that's it right there.
- At Thu Aug 20, 02:44:00 PM voz said...
Not to be an asshole and piss all over your blog, but, the inherent sexism is worthy of addressing too.
The article and the attitude frames cis women as a category subject to contamination, yes, and just as importantly, uses a certain lesser level of competence as the border enforcement mechanism."
Put another way, if you are too good of a woman athlete, some shithead with a Q-Tip and a test tube will come to confiscate your womanhood, and shame your whole damn country, and blame the mess on you, enforcing the idea that women athletes must adhere to being less than male athletes or "impure ones" or face brutal, public consequences.
- At Thu Aug 20, 03:57:00 PM frau sally benz said...
Yea, I don't think you are being an asshole or pissing all over my blog. Your thoughts are as welcomed here as my own.
Like I was telling you before, I agree with what you're saying and wasn't trying to say that biology is an effective way of distinguishing whether or not somebody should be performing in a sport.
Quite the contrary, I tried to bring up the fact that 1) you never know who is intersexed 2) such an identity shouldn't affect people's perception of their achievement and 3) evaluating somebody's achievements simply by their sex is just wrong. Of course, things get jumbled in my head a lot of the time, especially when I initially react to things, so I can't be sure how it comes across, only how I thought of them in my head.
- At Thu Aug 20, 06:47:00 PM Angie said...
I hate how sportswriters always group the 1936 German female impersonator in with intersexed persons. He was a man and passed himself off as a woman; that is TOTALLY different. Great post.
- At Thu Aug 20, 06:49:00 PM Angie said...
Just to clarify: a man, who identifies in his personal life as a man, but pretends to be a woman in only one instance in order to "cheat the system" is different from m-to-f trans. Just, yeah, to be clearer for myself :D
- At Thu Aug 20, 09:05:00 PM frau sally benz said...
Thanks for bringing that up Angie, because I was also confused about what relevance that had to the article -- I just didn't see how one example had to do with the other.