Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

The Case of Caster Semenya

The media storm over whether the young South African track star is male or female exposes the limits of our artificially constructed two-gender world.

The case of Caster Semenya began August 19 in Berlin at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics. It was here the young athlete impressed  fans with her commanding performance in the women’s 800 meters (she won gold and ran just shy of a world record). Almost instantly, this “manly” woman’s victory led to grumbling among her competitors. The comments centered on disbelief that she was female. She looked too masculine, they said. Her muscularity and deep voice reflected excessive testosterone levels, said others. Her physicality, they argued, presented an unfair advantage over other women in the race.

What resulted from this speculation can only be described as a humiliating. The IAAF, with no regard for South African pleas to stop the farce, ordered a battery of tests to determine Semenya’s “true” sexual category. As a consequence, there has been a subsequent torrent of public scrutiny over Semenya’s gender, and public debate over her right to keep her medal.

Many biologists commented on the lunacy of such “gender determination” tests. The strict categorical separation of male and female is a cultural creation. While there exist criteria for sex division, biology often operates in the grey areas. It is not as committed to our categories as we are. Some girls are born with sexual characteristics associated with men (such as high testosterone levels). Likewise, some boys are born with female sexual characteristics (such as those associated with Klinefelter’s syndrome). Yet it is rare these individuals are subject to public scrutiny over their reproductive organs, hormone levels or general physicality. Rarer still are public accusations that such individuals are wilfully engaged in deception; claiming to be somebody they are not. We respect, or should respect, the myriad of differences among people.    

Many argued that “fairness” within competitive sport was the overriding principle in Semenya’s case.  This was the implicit argument being made by both the IAAF and much of the print media. Maybe these medals do not belong to her because she is not ‘feminine enough’ to compete as a woman. This line of thinking is questionable on three practical grounds. First, it reflects a (mistaken) assumption that medical tests can actually verify a “true” gender for all individuals.  While I wish to avoid discussing Semenya’s biology here, it is worth noting the test results (leaked by an Australian paper) did not provide the conclusive evidence hoped for. Second, the principle of fairness must be weighed against Semenya’s own right to privacy and the potential consequences of public humiliation. Third, a likely result of the tests will be to strip Caster of her ability to compete as a woman. Thus despite her intensive training and superb natural talent, her competitive athletic career may be over simply because her biology does fit conventional categories.

There is also a deeper philosophical reason to reject this treatment of Semenya. As citizens living in liberal societies, we pride ourselves on our ability to look beyond race, ethnicity, gender, body type, physical ability and sexual orientation when making judgements about an individual’s right to participate in cultural events. This amounts to a central tenant of modern liberalism. Discrimination based on who we are is not permissible. After all, we do not allow public institutions – such as schools – to segregate students, or deny them certain opportunities because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs.  We must also foster, at a personal and cultural level, an ethos of tolerance and acceptance between and amongst individuals. The acceptance and practice of diversity and variation among different peoples is a hallmark of liberal and progressive societies. 

We protect liberties not simply out of an abstract belief in legal formalism. We do so because the liberties we seek to protect are those that allow us to flourish as individuals. And as an individual, Caster Semenya has no doubt as to whom she is. She is a woman. This is not a case of a man masquerading as a female to collect gold medals. Semenya understands herself as a woman, her family has raised her as a woman, and her village accepts her as a woman.  Can this lifetime as a female actually be undone by a few doctors? Has decades of research on the cultural properties of sex and gender taught us nothing?  Semenya has described the public scrutiny over her gender as a “joke”. This is true, but I would go further and add it is both a cruel and foolish joke. It is cruel because we have managed to create a public conversation out of a young women’s body. It is foolish because medical tests only provide one small answer to a much broader and complicated question: what is gender?  

Voices within South Africa have understandably been the most critical. From the very beginning South Africans have criticised not only the intent of the investigation, but the effects on Semenya as well. Few, unfortunately, have listened. It is likely South Africans know better than most the dangers implicit in the use of firm categories. We should have listened. In the end, the most important issue is not Semenya’s gender. It is our fixation on it. In an attempt to provide fairness to competitive sport, we have trampled the rights of a talented young woman. We have invaded her privacy and turned her biology into a public spectacle. The IAAF will likely deny her the right to compete in future competitions, despite her hard work and abundant talent. Yet the worst consequence of all is the violation of one of Semenya’s rights of personhood; her ability to develop and practice her identity as a woman.