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Semenya: Sex and Gender

19 September 2009

SemenyaFor weeks now, I’ve put off writing a post about [Mokgadi] Caster Semenya, the phenomenal young runner who won gold in the 800 m at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics with a time of 1:55.45 in the final. For those who aren’t familiar, Semenya is an 18-year-old runner from Seshego village, near Polokwane in South Africa’s Limpopo province who recently underwent “gender testing” to confirm she was eligible to compete in women’s events.

I have a series of issues with the whole story:

  • First, there’s a difference between sex and gender. Sex is a biological characteristic (itself not always deterministic), whereas gender is an identity. Semenya’s gender identity is not under dispute: she has always identified as a woman (or, more likely a girl — she is only 18). Her mother never questioned that she was a girl, and Semenya even has a birth certificate to prove she’s female. But major papers like the LA Times apparently don’t know the difference between sex and gender.
  • And, what is all of this saying to young girls about body image? Gregg Doyel, a columnist for CBS Sports is so sentimental about the saga, he’s called Semenya ugly. In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding her win, Semenya has gotten a makeover.
  • I also have issues with how identity more generally is being handled by the mainstream media. What does it mean to be Bantu? The New York Times said:

    The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, may be more predisposed to being hermaphrodites but they do not always have obvious male genitalia, said Dr. Maria New, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. They are genetically female yet have both testes and ovaries.

    Really? Is it any wonder so many folks in South Africa are claiming the accusations are rooted in racism? The racism cry doesn’t seem so far off, given the recent decisions about cross-country championships.

  • Finally, I worry about how all of this is affecting an 18-year-old woman who not very long ago was living in the village. It’s not just a question of whether her rights were violated, but a serious consideration of what this outcome means for the rest of her life. Where does she go from here? And who was supposed to be looking out for her best interest? The coach who didn’t tell her that she was undergoing “gender testing” but rather doping testing?

I’m no scholar of gender nor familiar with much of the background here, and I’m certainly not the only one throwing up her arms and saying WTF, so here’s a blogger who has lots to say, and another one who tells us why we should be uneasy about the whole circus.

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