Anatomy/Physiology / Body Image / Gender / intersex / LGBT / media / Race / Sex in the news

“Yes, a secret man?”


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Question to the Sexpert:

“So what’s the deal with Caster Semenya, the runner who is undergoing gender tests? Why would it possibly take so long to establish if she’s actually a she? Can’t a quick look up the skirt settle this?”

The short version: She’s an 18 year old South African runner who handily smoked her competition in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Berlin last week.

And she doesn’t exactly look or sound like Maria Sharapova.

Between her sharply muscled physique, astounding athletic ability and (arguably) boyish disinterest in wearing skirts and long hair, she has aroused and dodged harassment her whole life about being a boy.

And while I don’t think it played any part in the decision of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to give her a gender test, the oddball fact is her name happens to be an anagram for “yes, a secret man.”

Now, Caster says the accusations that she is actually male are bullshit, her family says they’re bullshit, her team and country say they’re bullshit and they would all like to add that the whole thing smells a lot like… what is that thing?….that white people have done to black Africans for hundreds of years…. You know…. oh yeah, racism.

Like, I said, she doesn’t exactly look like Maria Sharapova.

So a month ago she was sent in for the battery of tests that require everything from a gynecologist to a psychologist, with examinations of her hormones, chromosomes, internal and external anatomy because she a) got too good too quickly and b) actually has three times the normal amount of testosterone for a woman.

Now, to clarify, most people who question her gender and ask for this gross invasion of privacy and very public humiliation don’t think she’s some dude who know’s he’s a dude but competes as a woman anyway– although that certainly has happened. They’re suggesting that Caster, like some other runners who came from such humble beginnings that consistent meals were a genuine concern, might be a man and not know it.

And honestly, they may be right. Caster might not have the standard XX chromosome pattern, or she might have no internal female anatomy or she might be intersexed in some other way. But then again, so might you. Between Klinefelter’s, Androgen Insensitivity, simple undifferentiated genitalia and the litany of other ways a person can be not 100% male or female, the shocking fact is that 1 in 100 births is, to some degree, intersex.

A lot of people have no idea until they hit puberty and things that are “supposed” to happen, don’t. Or things that aren’t “supposed” to happen do. Or they can’t get pregnant. Or they require internal surgery and BAM- holy shit, there’s an ovary!

And even if it’s discovered that she has some facet of intersexuality, it’s hard to say whether that makes her male or female- enough to allow her to compete against women. Here is an amazing essay on how bloody complicated the process is and how sports needs a standardized way of determining gender.

The whole issue is complicated by science and politics… with a touch of racism. In a world where we now must prove our gender to fly on an American airplane, the world is fairly hostile to transgender and intersex people. Caster has been greeted with a hero’s welcome back in South Africa but the fate of her gold medal still hangs in the balance. Here’s hoping things work out for her.

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