Boy or Girl?

The latest on the South African runner Caster Semenya is on the Telegraph’s website.

Caster SemenyaThe tests carried out on the 18 year-old shortly after her victory in Berlin are believed to have shown that she has a chromosomal abnormality that gives her both male and female characteristics.

According to reports in the Australian media, the medical tests have established that she has no womb or ovaries and that she also has internal testes – the male sexual organs responsible for producing testosterone.

Earlier analysis had revealed that Semenya’s testosterone levels were three times the normal level for a woman.

The International Association of Athletics Federations received the results of Semenya’s ‘gender verification test’ this week, but it has refused to confirm the findings until they have been verified by a panel of independent scientific experts and the athlete has been personally informed.

But Pierre Weiss, the IAAF secretary general, hinted strongly at the results on Thursday when he said: “It is clear that she is a woman, but maybe not 100 per cent. We have to see if she has an advantage from her possibly being between two sexes compared to the others.”

The IAAF will now have to decide whether to strip the teenager of the gold medal she won in Berlin.

The likelihood is that Semenya will be allowed to keep the medal, but she looks certain to be disqualified from competing in future women’s races.

A quick biology lesson for those unacquainted with the development of human babies. As a baby forms in his/her mothers womb, regardless of their gender they develop pseudo-ovaries in the area where a female’s ovaries are located. If the child is a boy (XY chromosome) the pseudo-ovaries descend to become testes.

What might have happened in this case? Well, it’s not been revealed yet what Semenya’s sex chromosomes are, so we can’t say whether we’re dealing with a chromosomal male (XY) with some external female genitalia, a chromosomal female (XX) with no womb and some male genital formation (this is the implication of the statement by Pierre Weiss), or some other sex chromosomal variation.

What is clear is that because the world is fallen these are not simple questions. Is someone’s sex what their chromosomes say it is (as Cranmer seems to be arguing this morning and a perspective for which I have some sympathy), dependant on what their sexual organs are or simply what I or you (queerly) choose it to be? Is someone who has sex chromosomes which indicate one thing, and genitals and hormones which indicate another “broken” and “un-whole” in any sense? Complicated…

4 Comments on “Boy or Girl?

  1. As someone living in South Africa, I’d like to comment on way Caster Semenya has been treated, especially as it raises issues not just of gender but also of race and class.

    Caster Semenya was completely unknown a month ago. From the biographical details that the media have provided, she seems like an ordinary, friendly girl from a rural area of Polokwane, one of South Africa’s poorest provinces. She always seems to have been a bit different, prefering to play soccer with the boys, but she took to running a few years ago and is phenomenally good! She’s now a student at the University of Pretoria. Everyone in South Africa is very proud of her, especially her rural village which threw a big homecoming party for her.

    As everyone knows now, she burst out of anonymity last month at the IAAF Championships when she took the 800m title very easily and slashed a world record that had stood for nearly 10 years! Almost immediately, questions about her sex were being aired and it seems that the IAAF leaked details of their concerns to the media. It is especially these leaks that have made the South African athletics authorities and government very angry, and there has been lots of talk about how if she was an established, white, high profile athlete she would not have been treated this way by the IAAF. I think that there is some justification in this response, and it seems clear that the IAAF has not come out well from this episode.

    Having said that, Caster has now become media hot property in South Africa and everyone in the news wants a piece of her. Some of the most controversial politicians in South Africa (Julius Malema and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela) made sure they were in the cameras to welcome her back and took the opportunity to get some nice soundbites in. ‘You’ magazine (a bit like ‘OK’ in the UK or ‘People’ in the USA put Caster in flowery dresses, gave her a makeover and presented her to its readers as ‘feminine’ under the heading ‘Wow, Look at Caster now!’. Her coach resigned this week stating that she had been duped into taking sex tests and that he was ashamed about the role he had played in it all.

    Amidst all this it seems that very few people are concerned about Caster and she is in danger of becoming a media freak show. In my view the South African media has behaved disgracefully. She is an ordinary girl from a poor rural background who thankfully seems to be rooted enough to have kept her head while the media has been collectively losing theirs. Here are some quotes from the above-mentioned ‘You’ magazine interview.

    The lifestyle magazine quotes Semenya’s university friends saying that she wants to buy stilettos and have a manicure and pedicure. Semenya adds: “I’ve never bought my own clothes — my mum buys them for me. But now that I know what I can look like, I’d like to dress like this more often.”

    Semenya also breaks her silence on the furore over her gender, which made headlines around the world. “I see it all as a joke, it doesn’t upset me,” she says. “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.”

    The quotes speak for themselves. I think Caster comes out of this episode far better than anyone else around her!

  2. A difficult case. I suppose there do have to be the tests to ascertain whether or not she has an unfair biological advantage over other women (what do people think?) There is no doubt it has been handled badly with all this publicity. Most important to bear in mind is that she is simply being the person she was born as. If she does have a mix of male and female characterisitic, I bet she would still rather be treated with respect than pity.

  3. Although Ms. Semenya seems very secure in her female identity (and really, that’s where this should end; she considers herself a woman, her birth certificate says she’s a woman, and she has external female genitalia), this does raise some questions for Christians. This is, as far as I know, the first high-profile case an intersexual person has gotten.

    If Ms. Semenya felt that she was a man, and wanted to have gender reassignment surgery, could we blame her? What if she was attracted to women? This should be a wake up call to Christians that there very well could be biological basis for same-sex attraction and gender identity issues. That doesn’t change our viewpoints about traditional morality, but it does change how we are to effectively witness to such people.

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