Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya and the great gender debate  

25 comments

Because Caster Semenya has defined muscles and can run faster than most people we've seen, she couldn't possibly be 100% female. Undoubtedly, the right thing to do is to subject her to grueling, intricate, and humiliating "gender testing" to confirm our gender stereotypes - that Caster is only so fast because she is part male or all male.

In the mean time, just to "prove" that Caster can fit the narrow role of a "real" woman, certain people thought it necessary to give her a feminine makeover. Take that, gender testers, Caster can rock high heels and lipstick, so she must be a woman.

It doesn't matter that Caster has gotten this crap all her life, we simply must know Caster's sex... we must categorize her... it's like a challenge that our society has become obsessed with, similar to every Saturday Night Live character who encounters the famously androgynous Pat.

And now we've discovered that Caster - our "Pat" - is a hermaphrodite, but some argue that no, she isn't a hermaphrodite, and her poor mother just wants people to back off, and now Caster has withdrawn from a race because she "isn't feeling well."

I just want to shout at everyone to STOP.

Don't you all see? This is why it is just impossible to classify people using those two simple symbols you see on bathroom doors - the people who wear skirts, and the people who don't. Caster's case is not unique. About 1.7% of the U.S. population has been born intersexed, and in South Africa the number is 1 in 500. It may seem insignificant because it seems like we only really care about the majority of the population, not the minorities, but cases like Caster's show that real people have to suffer from this every day... and I'm not talking about intersexuality; I'm talking about gender roles.

People may pity Caster for the horrific "confusion" she must suffer from, not knowing what she "really" is, but what is the greater injustice here? The fact that she was born this way, or the fact that society feels it necessary to penalize her for it?

No need to blame her testosterone levels. I blame us.

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25 comments: to “ Caster Semenya and the great gender debate


  • September 11, 2009 at 10:12 PM  

    It's like Sarah Gronert all over again, and on a much larger scale. I hate it for her, she's a little different, but she's human and she'll probably never escape this being so internationally well known


  • September 12, 2009 at 10:42 AM  

    if she's not a woman, she has no right to compete women, it's as simple as that. If she is a woman, it can be confirmed really easy.


  • September 12, 2009 at 11:28 AM  

    Burn, apparently it can't be confirmed "really easily" since this entire debacle is occurring. Contrary to what you might think, it's not as simple as XX or XY, many people can have XXY or XXX or XXXY or a dozen other combinations.

    My point is: you can't put people into the narrow categories of "men" and "women." Where do people like Caster fit in?


  • September 12, 2009 at 3:57 PM  

    I agree completely with this post and with Amy. Apparently to most of the world there should be simple lines drawn in the sand (as exhibited by the above comment from Burn) without allotting room for people to be individuals. I love how you describe the icons used on bathroom doors in this post, because for me that cements exactly how the world would like to categorize people.The magazine cover photo to me is just disturbing, because apparently all it takes is a dress and some makeup to make a woman.

    I myself am not much older than Caster Semenya, and so it’s almost painful to hear the humiliating hoops through which she has to jump just to prove that she deserves to have won that medal. Though the case shouldn’t have been leaked, and no one should have to endure such public embarrassment, at least now more people are aware of the issue and it’s not all hidden somewhere in the system where it’ll be neatly cleaned up. Right now the one good thing I can see in the situation is that maybe other people in the future won’t have to suffer through a huge public affair like Semenya does right now.

    Thank you for writing this blog post. It’s so good to hear someone appropriately enraged at the whole situation, and with a solid argument to back everything up. Though clearly you cannot change everyone’s mind (again, witness Burn), I feel just voicing that disgust at the unfair treatment another human being is forced to undergo must be accomplishing something.


  • September 12, 2009 at 4:11 PM  

    Thank you, Buffy :)


  • September 13, 2009 at 12:23 AM  

    but competitions she enters, they are held for women. Beings with XX chromosomes. This very narrow category of people. If she doesn't fit into this category, she can't participate in these competitions, since it very likely gives her unfair advantage over other competitors - real women. Can't you see that?


  • September 14, 2009 at 5:19 PM  

    Burn, please tell me what makes someone a "real woman." A very large number of people have something other than XX or XY. These people are REAL women and REAL men.
    I think you would be very surprised about how many people don't fit simply into the category of "man" or "woman."


  • September 15, 2009 at 9:40 AM  

    the point isn't where exactly the line between men and women is. The point is that in sports, you must draw it. Otherwise, you'll be having men and women competing on equal terms. And, unsurprisingly, women shall be losing in all kinds of sports.


  • September 15, 2009 at 12:09 PM  

    You seem to be very misguided, Burn. If women are losing in sports, it is simply because they have not received the same training and encouragement that men have. Funding for women's sports gets cut all the time - just one example of how society refuses to encourage women to be good at sports. Over the past several years, female runners have gotten progressively better and their times have gotten closer and closer to men's. Have women suddenly and miraculously become better at sports? No. They have just been receiving more access to decent training and slightly more encouragement than they were getting a decade ago.


  • September 15, 2009 at 11:16 PM  

    lol, how much funding you need for running training?

    Do you actually believe what you say? Take 10 random women and 10 random men and most men will perform better at almost any kind of physical activity. It is not a sign of being better/worse/whatever. It's just a fact, and denying it is laughable. I do admire women who can actually compete with men. They have to work much harder to achive the same results. But inherently most women are weaker and slower then most men. It is all about testosterone.


  • September 16, 2009 at 2:41 AM  

    Do I believe what I say? What kind of silly question is that?

    When I commented on girls' sports receiving less funding, I wasn't relating it to Olympic competitions. I was using it as an example for how women receive much less encouragement to excel in sports than men do. It has NOTHING to do with biology or chromosomes or any of that crap... if you put half the population in jeans and tell them to climb trees, and the other half in dresses and tell them to cross their legs to ensure that their underwear does not show, which half do you think will exceed in physical activities? Come on. You cannot seriously tell me that at least part of the reason as to why men might exceed in sports doesn't have to do with socialization.

    And Burn, where are you getting these facts that 10 random men will run faster than 10 random women? Have you conducted a study on this? Testosterone does not make you run faster... where on Earth are you learning this? I really would like to know.


  • September 16, 2009 at 8:51 AM  

    a perfectly valid question, it is. Some people just continue arguing even knowing they are wrong.

    A study? I myself, really far from a fast runner, yet at trainings in university, for example, I was able to outrun almost all female classmates (please don't take it as boasting. I'm a bad runner, and never liked sports much, anyways)
    Now stop for a bit and answer honestly to yourself - if you were to compete with 10 healthy men of your age, how many of them you'd outrun? Is it because you've been put in dresses since birth?

    Oh, and about testosterone - if you don't have any real source, just google "testosterone doping". Pretty stupid of all these athletes and their trainers to use something that doesn't help them at all and be disqualified for it, yes?


  • September 16, 2009 at 12:00 PM  

    What I meant when I said that Testosterone doesn't make you run faster is the fact that biology doesn't play as big of a role as you think. It is all socialization. Yes, Burn, I can attribute my lack of athleticism to the fact that I've been put in dresses since birth. Had I been born a male, I have no doubt in my mind that my father would've pushed me to participate in sports. In my junior high gym class, they split up the boys and the girls - the boys did wrestling, and the girls did aerobics. Do you think society plays no role at all in how men and women "differ"?


  • September 22, 2009 at 10:10 AM  

    No doubt both socialization and sex play a role in athletic performance. Which one trumps the other depends on the type and intensity of socialization between males and females.


  • October 10, 2009 at 11:23 AM  

    Women are inherently weaker. And nothing can change it. It's nature. It's the way the things are. Just admit it.


  • October 10, 2009 at 12:18 PM  

    Will not admit it. But thanks for your opinion :)


  • April 12, 2010 at 1:41 PM  

    Caster is a woman and I'm disappointed she was on the cover of a magazine with a whole new look. She came into the Olympics having everyone judge her and put her down for not being considered a "woman." You're going to base your opinion that she's not a woman just based on her looks?! That's america for ya. Where she came from, not looking totally girly is normal. No one judges or tells her she needs to change her looks. And being a girl doesn't mean she can't be very athletic. The one thing that really bothers me is the fact she's right on the cover of a magazine. Why is it that big of a deal? Just because she's a woman...looking more womanly. I feel bad for her and I think she should be given more credit for her accomplishments.


  • July 16, 2010 at 3:11 AM  

    There are 2 very separate questions:
    Q1. Should society divide people into two categories based on the two common perceived gender roles?
    Answer: Obviously not, there are whole categories of people who do not fit into these two commonly perceived roles and must be free to define and be comfortable with their gender identity as they find it.
    Q2. Is it OK for sporting bodies to draw an arbitrary line at some point on the physiological boundary between male and female, and say "beyond this line, you cannot compete as a female"?
    Answer: Yes, it is. Caster in the end has been confirmed as female, but if she had not been, that would only have meant she was not female strictly as defined by the IAAF... And within the context of the sport she competes in, absolutely they do have the right to define that however they like. Would it have been horrible and tragic for Caster? Yes. Objectionable? No.
    I guess there is a third issue too, which is the nature of the tests prescribed to determine whether Caster (or any other competitor) fits into a particular sport's criteria to be elligible to compete in "male" or "female" competitions. Here I think there IS something wrong at the IAAF, and even more so with the South African Authorities. The law should be strict, and the punishments should be harsh, for the IAAF or any other body, if they make competitors undergo humiliating or degrading tests to determine elligibility.


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