The story of Caster Semenya seems to continue to grip the sports sections of news channels and papers alike. Her treatment has at times appeared more like a drug scandal, has been made out as a case of racism, and has become a major source of bewilderment and headaches for many, including the governing body of the sport in which she competes.
In one sense, she could face future disqualification for a reason she has no control over. She might be “guilty” of a rules violation but does this mean she should be treated as a cheat? We can’t be certain that anything would have been visibly unusual at birth, when gender tests tend to be commissioned, particularly in a highly-resourced health service. I suppose it doesn’t even occur to most parents to question what they can see.
Her case provides problems on many different levels, and it should be obvious that a news report can hardly do something with this complexity any justice at all. But the problem is, the whole of human society the entire world has assumed, taught and enforced a system of two utterly distinct genders for centuries, if not millennia. Sometimes this has taken particularly brutal forms, others it has put on a softer face. It is the basis of heteronormativity; after all, if there weren’t two distinct sex/genders, there could be no assumption that people should marry someone of the opposite configuration. But although it holds true as an assumption for the majority of the population, it misses the whole picture.
1 in 2500 people are born with a gender condition, as I learnt in a talk at Greenbelt, of which there are apparently 96 possible birth-gender-conditions, though I haven’t a source for that figure. Many won’t ever have reason to discover their condition, and most will live relatively happily in an assumed Gender. In Semenya’s case, we have no reason to believe this has (or hasn’t) been a problem for her in finding a sense of emotional well-being, though only she can know.
Of course, this is one of the main assumptions made in planning sports events: there will be men, there will be women, and they will fit two very neat categories. In this way, Trans people face massive discrimination in sports. Part of this is because an argument is often made that people’s sex matters, not their gender, in assigning classification in sports. But several sports are radically different between men’s and women’s disciplines (gymnastics being one of the biggest examples, with a greater focus on gracefulness in women’s floor routines, whilst men are marked far more on sheer power). But even the stipulation that sex, not gender, be taken into account gives no real clue as to whether an intersex person fits the male or female category.
When the news story first emerged, I was on my bike ride, and that morning I stopped off at a small village shop for drinks and snacks. I saw two men pouring over the pictures in the paper, and quickly realised I probably wanted to avoid conversation with them, as the entire tone of their conversation seemed to be a mix of freak-show punter and some kind of anger. “Look, its clearly a man”, “Pull down their shorts and check”. It infuriated me. But its also clear that this is going to be the response of people who put so much in store by society fitting the nice boxes they were bought up with, a negative backlash at the shattering of the black and whiteness (or perhaps blue and pinkness) we internalise at such a young age.
It might seem a ridiculously small number of people in society, but why should that change the fact that current gender-divisions aren’t working? And why should we assume that anyone who might not be entirely female should compete as a man, as some are saying? (And what does that say about our view of women’s athletic abilities?) One thing does appear clear, however, and that is that our collective understanding of gender as a global society really should be put back up for debate. This might be a painful process, but it can’t be avoided. Science, that thing upon which we are supposed to base our enlightenment, no longer supports the claim that sex is two distinct categories. But I wonder if all this is a tall order, given how much resistance, how little maturity has been shown by much of the population of even this country over the last few weeks.