Winning the gold medal in a world championship should be one of the best moments in an athlete’s life. For Caster Semenya, the day she won first place in the world championship 800-meter race was the day she went into seclusion to avoid the tabloid storm surrounding the rumors that she is a man.
Eighteen-year-old Semenya’s muscular physique, record-breaking abilities and masculine facial features led up to the accusations by fellow competitors that she was deceiving the International Association of Athletics Federation by competing under a different gender.
This is by no means the first time that a female athlete has been under scrutiny for possibly entering in competitions with a Y chromosome advantage. But this recent accusation, leading to gynecological, endocrinological, psychological, gender specialty and internal medicinal testing has reignited the debate on what determines male or female and what happens to those who fall somewhere in between. Perhaps the need for public accusations and extensive testing are outdated and discriminatory to people who are born in the grey area between genders.
In the advancing world of science, the idea that all humans are born with clearly defined gender categories is a myth. The fact is that more than one in a hundred humans are born in the spectrum between male and female (deemed intersex), according to biologist and author Anne Fausto-Sterling in her Sexing the Body, published 2000.
The possibility that Semenya could lose her gold medal because of a medical abnormality that she was unaware of is a shocking reminder many areas of society prefer to create hard lines that don’t reflect the diversity of the human experience.
Gender screening was dropped from the IAAF in 1999, mostly because there was no clear line of what chromosomes or testosterone levels could be deemed clearly male or clearly female. But gender testing is still performed when accusations of gender irregularity are made against an athlete.
While several female athletes have been tested over the years, the public announcements of these tests and the scrutiny that the athletes are put under are highly detrimental to their mental health and their athletic future. Groups like IAAF and the Olympic committee need to evolve into the tabloid-heavy times and find more subtle and confidential ways to test for gender variance so that those whose gender is in question are not dehumanized via public dissection.
Many news establishments, sports commentators and blogs were aflutter with talk of fairness and level playing fields when the announcement was made about Semenya’s testing. But almost none of the articles or comments recognized that the IAAF already had a rule on the books that allowed certain types of intersex females to compete without prejudice. The policy of gender verification in the IAAF’s 2006 code states: Conditions should be allowed (a) These conditions that accord no advantages over other females: — Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome – Gonadal Dysgenesis and – Turner’s syndrome.
By making a person’s gender testing private and accepting as any people that cand fall in the gender rainbow, the issue of public embarrassment is minimized a great deal and hopefully more intersex athletes will be able to feel included in the sports.