Caster Semenya

I did a double take when I stumbled upon a (YOU) magazine cover featuring an unrecognizable picture of a gorgeous Caster Semenya, the beleaguered middle-distance runner from South Africa. Since her stunning win at the world championship in Berlin, Semenya has been subjected to inordinate scrutiny and stigmatization regarding her “true sex identity.” Her masculine appearance invoked accusations from her rivals, who claimed Semenya was not really a woman. Various websites soon declared that she was a hermaphrodite. Consequently, secret gender testing was enforced on Semenya without her parents’ consent (Semenya confused the verification with doping tests, which she had been used to).

Caster Semenya is a 2016 Olympic Gold medalist

On the YOU cover, Semenya was transmogrified from the gamin she was reputed to have been all her life. She wore her hair long, wore makeup, jewelry, and an elegant dress that covered the imposing muscular frame she had displayed in Berlin. Instead of the chiseled biceps she had once flaunted, her makeover revealed slender arms judiciously positioned. A radiant smile softened her face. Semenya projected the conventional image of a woman. I wondered if she had surrendered her “true identity.” However, I look further and see the gaze in her eyes is nonplussed. She is not “faking” it, and her irreducible sui generis is unaffected. I feel I see a woman. In the article, she responds to the controversy by affirming her self-awareness, “I just walk away.” For Semenya, her identity is not an open question.

Young Caster Semenya

However, considering that I have been “fooled” many times when I perceived that I was looking at a woman, I realize that my conclusion might be wrong. So how do we properly identify who fits either side of the binary gender categorization? We discover that there are no perfect litmus tests for verifying sex identity—and medical advances only complicate this. Thus, binary categorization may be dubious.  The speculation has stimulated acrimonious debate in many quarters: the athletic organizers are trying to determine how to conduct proper gender tests if at all, for the sake of fairness; people have been reprimanded for leaking Semenya’s gender tests; athletic committees have yet to decide whether to continue to allow Semenya to compete as a female, while South Africa has declared that Semenya will compete as a female regardless of the Olympics’ governing body’s determination; a reputable law firm has altruistically offered to represent Semenya, as it is convinced that Semenya is the unwitting victim in the quagmire, and that her rights have been violated. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, gender testing is socially insensitive, discriminatory, and traumatic for intersex individuals (2010).

Judith Butler (PhD, Yale) is a gender theorist and author of “Gender Trouble”.

Conventionally, a person’s biological sex is believed to inextricably determine his/her gender. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler challenges many assumptions that people have about the sex-gender correspondence and its ramifications, such as the assumed immutability of gender and sex. Through Butler’s insight, I discovered flaws in the testing and categorizations utilized in sports. It would seem that athletic organizations equate gender with sex, since sex and gender verification are used interchangeably. Thus, most of the athletic world assumes gender to be “a natural manifestation of sex or a cultural constant” (a myth Butler debunks) that’s not revisable, since it prevents full-participation of transsexuals in competitions. (Transsexuals were banned from the Olympics until 2004, when restricted participation was allowed.)

Butler not only unravels the myths about sex-gender correspondence, but also humanely “seeks to expand the realm of gender possibilities […] to make life possible [for] those who fail to approximate [the morphological binary ideal of male or female]”.

Accordingly, Butler addresses the issue of sexual ambiguity or intersexuality in humans, which seems to affect Semenya. Intersexuality is manifested when individuals exhibit the biological characteristics of both male and female sexes.

Contemporary literature indicates that some individuals possess atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish males from females. Thus, Melbourne University early development specialist, Andrew Sinclair, calls Semenya’s condition complex, as he dispels the typical notion of sex-gender identity, “When we talk about [male or female, we think of] simple boxes as a male always having certain levels of testosterone, having a penis and testes and a female having female genitalia and breasts” (The Nation, 11 Sep. 2009). According to Professor Sinclair:

 “Disorders of sex development […occur] because there’s a disruption to the normal development of the testes or the ovaries [which] don’t always function properly, don’t produce the right amount [of] hormones, and [cause] potentially ambiguous genitalia and unusual hormone levels” (The Nation, 2009).

 “Disorders of sex development […occur] because there’s a disruption to the normal development of the testes or the ovaries [which] don’t always function properly, don’t produce the right amount [of] hormones, and [cause] potentially ambiguous genitalia and unusual hormone levels”

The Nation, 2009.

Sinclair concluded that it was appropriate for a reassessment of how people are characterized for sports, since the gender categorization is flawed. Butler’s analysis is applicable to a spectrum of transgenderism including, gender dysphoria, sex development disorders, and transsexuality. This essay will apply Butler’s concepts to intersexuality and how it affects Semenya’s gender.

In the transmogrified rehearsal of Semenya which graced the cover of YOU, we find an apt analogy for the “performativity” that underscores Butler’s thesis on gender. Butler posits that “genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor contrived”. Indeed, a revelation like this not only forces a reconsideration of the sporting world’s categorizations and gender verification—as Sinclair suggests—but also affects my assessment of the refurbished image of Semenya (on YOU). So Semenya’s exhibited femininity was neither “original nor derived?”

Butler probes, “Does being female constitute a ‘natural fact’ or a cultural performance, or is ‘naturalness’ constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex?” The performativity of gender signifies a constructed identity that is socially determined rather than an ontological (natural) fact. Butler expounds that the normative binary classification (male-female), and “performativity” (disciplinary production) of gender “effects a false stabilization of gender in the interests of the heterosexual construction and regulation of sexuality within the reproductive domain”. Thus, to facilitate the governing of society, sex and gender have been equated and reconstructed in a normative binary ideal that precludes all other gender possibilities via a “regulatory fiction”. Furthermore, society directs acceptable masculinity or femininity, while individuals play their assigned roles.

The Establishmentarianism that polices the binary gender ideal is exhibited even within medical and scientific circles. This is reflected in the bias in Dr. Paul McHugh’s comment:

[The] subjects struck me as caricatures of women. They wore high heels, copious makeup, and flamboyant clothing; they spoke about how they found themselves able to give vent to their natural inclinations for peace, domesticity, and gentleness—but their large hands, prominent Adam’s apples, and thick facial features were incongruous […] Women psychiatrists […] sent to talk with them […] intuitively [saw] through the disguise and […] exaggerated postures. “Gals know gals,” one said […], “and that’s a guy” (McHugh, Surgical Sex, 1).

Prima facie, we might conclude that McHugh is describing “men in drag,” the metaphor Butler explores in Gender Trouble. However, McHugh is describing post-surgical transsexuals. Interestingly, by insinuating that transsexuals represent an unreal and unoriginal gender, McHugh is merely affirming Butler’s claims that gender is not real and not original but represents an illusion we subscribe to, through its performativity.

Butler already postulates gender as an imitation without an origin—as we are perpetually acculturated to act female or male. Butler debunks the notion of gender originality and exposes it as a failed copy—a utopian ideal that no one can embody. Consequently, she calls for reconsideration of notions of masculinity and femininity, and the validation of other gender possibilities. Should we not extend this concept to sports and eliminate the gender barrier?

Sex identity neither affects participation nor creates boundaries of eligibility in many professions. For instance, female lawyers are not segregated from their male counterparts. Even Michael Jackson’s transmogrified androgyny was not detrimental to his unrivaled success in music. Although there is significant overlap in male and female athletic performance, gender seems to fundamentally affect sports in a peculiar way. Physical strength/capacity is central to athletics. A New York Times article suggests that men possess an innate advantage over women in sports, because of their “naturally” more muscular frames. Perhaps our constructed social consciousness would be shocked to watch a boxing match, where a woman is pitted against a more muscular man. Therefore, to preclude unfairness, sports are mostly organized along gender lines, because of identifiable physical and physiological differences between the sexes.

But consider the unfair exclusion of intersex individuals (who are gender non-conforming) in sports. In what seems like a riposte to McHugh’s insinuation of factitious genders, Butler states, “If there is a positive normative task […] it is to insist upon the extension of […] legitimacy [validation] to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible”. Since Butler establishes that gender is neither true nor false, it seems reasonable to accommodate other gender possibilities—including intersexuality—in sports.

However, unlike Butler, McHugh seems to see an immutable connection between sex and gender. He suggests that gender dualism is not merely a social construct, but a biological imperative. He states that his conclusions are predicated on the results of studies on subjects that had undergone neonatal-genital reassignment because of an embryonic disorder. McHugh interprets the experiment as suggesting that “sexual identity followed the genetic constitution. Male-type tendencies […] followed the testosterone-rich intrauterine fetal development of [subjects] studied, regardless of efforts to socialize them as females at birth”. Alternatively, McHugh may be oversimplifying the situation, given that sex reassignment surgery has been shown to successfully treat many cases of gender dysphoria.

Perhaps, it can be argued that neither Butler nor McHugh is writing without some bias: Butler who is feminist, liberal, and lesbian, seems to have something at stake in the recognition of anathematized contra-binary tendencies. Similarly, McHugh may be reconciling concepts with puritanical religious ideals—evidenced by his use of the Catholic Education Resource Center as his platform.

SOURCE: Caster Semenya competes in this picture taken March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Maria Martinez-Patino, ’80s Spannish hurdler

With the egregious controversy surrounding her biological sex, it appears Semenya has been categorized by the anomalous indeterminacy that challenges the puritanical binary gender ideal. Consequently, like Maria Martínez-Patiño, a Spanish hurdler with “ambiguous sex identity” she incurs the excoriation experienced by those exhibiting intersexuality. It is dismal that it does not even matter that many victims of this stigmatization were raised as women and have always been identified (and self-identified) within their communities as women. Although they see themselves as women and possess the physical evidence of femininity—Martínez-Patiño exasperatedly attested “I have breasts and a vagina” (New York Times, Jan 16, 2010)—they are subjected to the humiliation that results from being involuntarily categorized as hermaphrodites.

South Africans have rallied in support of Semenya as they discern a continuing pattern of racism in the dehumanization of Semenya. Ariel Levy notes in The New Yorker:

South Africans [compare the] fascination with Semenya’s gender to the dubious fame of another South African woman whose body captivated Europeans: Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus [who was sent] to Europe to be exhibited in front of […] oglers […] fascinated by her unusually large buttocks and […] rumors of her long labia. [South Africans feel] white foreigners are […] again scrutinizing a black female body [like it didn’t] contain a human being.

Thus, some argue that Semenya is also a victim of racism: Presently, the American law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf is representing Semenya in order to protect her civil and human rights.**  The Declaration of Independence declares the unalienable rights of individuals to life, liberty, and “to pursue happiness as we think best, by our own lights—provided only that we respect the equal rights of others to do the same.” As I deliberated on the conflict between “violation of tradition” in the “contravention of binary gender ideals” and the harm to the individual (Semenya), I wondered: how will the law firm resolve the case? The imperative to defend marginalized groups is compelling for me as a black man in America.

In just a few decades I find that I have gone from living as a man in Nigeria, to living as a black man. Filling a status minority category incurs denigrating epithets, such as “black-acting-white.” For Semenya, it is hermaphrodite. Members of marginalized groups are stripped of the unique identity that makes us human—not just male or female, black or white. Thus, their authenticity is perdurably under siege.

The persecution that Butler has called the “violence of gender norms” is stigmatizing as it dehumanizes those not conforming to gender dualism. The victims are scrutinized as spectacles in a freak show. Many marginalized groups are exposed to similar excoriation.

However, the controversy regarding intersex individuals’ participation in sports remains inconclusive. Many have called for an overhaul of “gender classification” for sports. Contemporary gender theorists, agreeing with Butler, acknowledge that binary gender is neither innate nor universal (citing third gender status in India), and advocate a third gender. Some have suggested that athletes should compete according to the sexual category they have lived as (and in which they consider themselves).

Dr. Eric Vilain (Director of the UCLA Center for Gender-Based Biology) disputes any significance regarding potential advantages of intersex competitors when they participate in organized sports. Dr. Vilain points out that “Elite athletes have inborn advantages over the rest of the population […] Nobody says there should be a level playing field […] If you are gifted, you should do the sport” (article in New York Times, Jan 2010). Accordingly, we do not ban seven-foot-tall players from professional basketball. Similarly, tennis superstar Serena Williams has been acknowledged to possess unusual physical strength that gives her an inherent advantage over female competitors. However, (thankfully) there are no calls for her exclusion from tennis. Given this, Semenya should compete within the category that she self-identifies—female.

As the sporting world contemplates some kind of panacea for the categorizations, I consider the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s exhortation to tolerate differences and embrace diversity. He makes the case based on our historical fallibility. Since we have held beliefs in the past that were wrong, our conventional beliefs regarding binary gender might also be wrong. The dialectics of social forces have often shown a hegemonic status-quo violently resisting norms it has failed to understand (rather than seeking illumination). Contra-norms (such as intersexuality) are reflexively branded as antithetical exhibits that threaten the ideal. Thus, they are not only demonized, but are targets for various forms of persecution by the majority.

However, what if the status-quo is wrong? It has been wrong before: executing those who proclaimed that the world was not flat. Perhaps, we should reconsider the veracity of our beliefs about the sex-gender norms—and at least uphold the undeniable rights and dignity of intersex individuals as human beings. This manifestly includes the rights of intersex individuals to choose and self-identify their sex, and the humane accommodation of intersex individuals in sports.  This seems implicit in the underlying message of Gender Trouble.

Sara Baartman, born in South Africa in 1789 was taken to France where she was pilloried before a racist crowd, as a human spectacle until her death in 1815

**Dewey & LeBoeuf was dissolved in 2012. This essay was written in 2010, but remained unpublished.