You probably didn’t hear much about Caster Semenya until her “makeover” this week, unless you are a hard-core sports fan.

Semenya is an 18-year-old from South Africa. Last month, she won an 800m race in the Berlin World Championships, after which the International Association of Athletics Federations demanded that she “prove” she’s female.

A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, have started the testing procedure but it is uncertain when the results will be known.

[IAAF secretary general Pierre] Weiss said testing was being done in Berlin and South Africa but admitted it was a complex issue.

The issue is one of genetics. Men and women have separate classes of competition because there are performance characteristics that correlate with sex (as determined by X-Y chromosomes).

In 2006, Indian Santhi Soundarajan vaulted to the top of the same 800m game and came crashing down after genetic testing revealed that she was “intersexed.”

Soundarajan was later diagnosed with AIS, or androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition in which a genetic male is resistant to androgens, the male sex hormones that include testosterone, leading the body to appear externally female.

I’m not an endrocinologist, so I don’t understand how Soundarajan could have a “male-influenced” performance advantage if she is resistant to testosterone. The TIME article doesn’t explain. (Surprised?)

The AIS Support Group claims that:

People with AIS have a functioning Y sex chromosome (and therefore no female internal organs), but an abnormality on the X sex chromosome that renders the body completely or partially incapable of recognising the androgens produced.

If that’s the case (ie, no uterus), I’m not sure why you’d need lots of tests. Clearly, the science is complicated. More complicated than I am going to explore here.

Genetics are, indeed, a major (but not the only) component of athletic success. For example, Lance Armstrong has an oversized heart, which means he can pump more blood per minute than someone with an average sized heart. It also seems as though his genetics allowed his body to “convert fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch muscle fibers” (note, this isn’t something you tell your body to do or something that is a common result of training) which helped boost his muscle-efficiency rate. A “huge” boost, according to the scientists who have studied Armstrong for more than a decade.

His body’s “genetic superiority” doesn’t disqualify him. We accept Armstrong’s genetic superiority because we don’t know why it happens. I guess. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if at some future date this muscle-efficiency bit is linked to something “female”?)

Sex. Well, that’s a different story, isn’t it?

In the current saga, we have an additional wrinkle. A sad reflection on culture. Not only has Semenya has lost her coach (who resigned because of his part in secret sex “testing”); she is also being “made-over” by her handlers to look the female part. At least Western-sensibilities-defined female part.

Coilhouse writes:

Today, Semenya fell victim to the same phenomenon as Susan Boyle some months before her: the softening magazine makeover.

Yes, Semenya has been madeover by South Africa’s You magazine. Make-up, hair, clothes all scream: “She’s female, dammit!”

She’s 18, she’s never bought her own clothes, she usually wears pants (sensible!) … and now she’s being turned into a celebrity girly model. What does that say to other non-conformist young women? What does that say about us, society?

And what if she had dressed this part before today? Would the Germans have challenged her “femaleness” if she had looked the part of a Western female?

Gender and sex are different; one is a social construct and the other is genetic (although, as we are learning, not necessarily digital). How the two play out as science discovers more about what makes us tick … is for the crystal ball and science fiction writers.

But today we have yet another sacrifice on the altar of “fairness.” Why are these sacrifices too often exceptional young women?

This post first appeared at Newsvine

KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • If you can get past the reporter’s misuse of gender (used as a synonym for sex), this ABC Good Morning America episode from August is pretty good. Estimated 1-in-2000 children are born “intersexed” — which means it’s not *that* rare.

    Perhaps a secondary issue here is the altar upon which we raise amateur (and professional) athletics?

  • I’ve been following this case for the last few weeks, and it just seems extremely…sad. It brings up a lot of issues surrounding gender and sex and what makes one a man or a woman. If this woman is intersexed, does that mean she doesn’t get to compete? It looks from the case of the intersexed Indian woman that, no, an intersexed person cannot compete among women. How about among men? And what if she were transgendered?

    It looks from the South African magazine article that she enjoyed getting dolled up — I hope she did, but am at the same time a little sad that this was probably some ploy by some manager to get her feminized in the public eye, when she clearly had had no interest in being feminized prior to this brouhaha. The scientists who are currently in the process of determining her genetic gender had this to say:

    “Why such a public statement about her femininity now when a team of scientists are simultaneously drawing conclusions that may not agree with it. It is indecently hasty when she could easily have waited until the science had been completed.”

    On the one hand, I agree she shouldn’t have to get tarted up to prove she’s a woman. On the other hand, if she does turn out to be intersex or even male, who’s to say that she shouldn’t be able to put on makeup and wear pretty clothes if she so chooses?

    In either case, I hope this awesome young athlete has a lot of support and love around her, because getting told by the international community that you are or aren’t a woman has got to be one heck of a mind-blowing experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    • From what I’ve read, it appears that if she is “intersexed” that she will not be able to compete as a woman. I’ve not seen anyone hypothesize about her competing against men — but “men” have physical characteristics that privilege them in some sports. And she’s not a “man.”

      Clearly her gender is female — she thinks of herself as female, she physically appears to be female. I just wish that her handlers didn’t think she needs to look like a *western* female in order to be considered “a girl” or to win sympathy for her case.

      Until this, I had no idea that mixed-up-sex was as common as this.

  • Father_Time


    Its about cheating not gender equlity. It’s about hiding a male in a female sport to gain advantage. An advantage that would presumably turn into fame and then wealth, albeit ill-gotten.

    It’s not about being unfair to women, rather it’s about defending women by preserving women’s sporting competitions so that they may compete without ambiguity. Which would surly happen should they be forced to compete with physically against men.

    Yes, the German’s would have indeed singled Semenya out anyway should she dress as a “girly girl”, simply because on the track Semenya still would dress as the rest of the athletes do, in a track suit.

    As for the makeover, it was not our society that required this, it was the South African society, with an African, even South African cultural quirk.

    I sincerely hope that Semenya is indeed a woman and thus allowed to kept the appropriate titles and awards. If not, then those bestowments must be returned to those whom deserve them.

    P.S. Gender is not cultural, its science.

    • How can it be “cheating” if the only way you know if you are intersexed is to have a helluva a lot of invasive tests? Why is not “cheating” to have a heart bigger than average? Both are genetically-based.

      Gender IS culture.

      SEX is science – but even science isn’t black-and-white. Watch the clip.

    • Ah, Father_Time, it’s all so simple for you in your own little world, isn’t it?

      Reality: if this were simply a dude dressing up in a woman’s uniform, it wouldn’t take weeks of genetic testing to tell that, now would it? (Hint: a quick visual inspection might suffice? You think?) This young woman had no reason to ever believe she was anything other than a young woman.

      • Father_Time

        Ah yes, the report is out. It looks like she/he will be disqualified as having both male and female genetic chromosomes. Just as others in the past have been disqualified for. An unfair advantage against women in the same competition.

        So to soothe your neurotic little world, maybe you could have Gay Olympics or something were she/he could compete in both the scientific anomaly and social anomaly events with equality.

  • StockBoySF

    Setting aside the transgender issue for the moment (which is interesting anyway) I just have one question: what is the gender on his/her birth certificate? If he was born a male, then he should compete as a male. If she was born a female, then she should compete as a female. I don’t get the impression that transgender is an issue here.

    Now a transgender or transexual person, someone who has undergone surgery to change their sex….. First I think we need to know why males and females compete separately. If males are considered stronger and faster because they are generally larger than females, then it makes sense that a male to female transgender/transsexual should compete as a male. If there is a competitive advantage in sports because of hormones, or something else which can be introduced into the transgender/transexual person, then the question is more complicated.

    Because transgender/transexual people have changed their sex and take hormones all I can say is that I don’t have an answer. But perhaps they should all compete as men. Male to female should compete as men because they were born as males and have the physical characteristics and female to male should compete as men because they may be taking treatments which give them an edge. Provided, of course, that the treatment isn’t outlawed by sporting associations. At any rate, that’s just one thought and I don’t know the answer.

    • Define “born male” or “born female.” If you mean, “if the baby has a penis it’s male and if it doesn’t it’s female”… then she is (apparently) female.

      The odds are that 1-in-2000 babies may physically appear to be female but have other characteristics that are “male.” What about them?

      She is NOT transgendered.

  • A few minor corrections:There are various definitions of “Intersex”. The one I prefer, the one used by the Intersex Society of North America, the UK Intersex Association, Anne Fausto-Stirling in her book “Sexing the body” etc is “having a body neither wholly male nor wholly female”.Numbers:It’s actually 1 in 60 people who are Intersexed to some degree. Though for most, it’s asymptomatic, and would take a genetic test, an ultrasound, or an examination of their medical records and the “corrective” surgery they had shortly after birth to find that out. Many never know – why should they?For about 1 in 1000 though, the Intersex condition is blatant and obvious, not subtle.Advantages:The International Amateur Athletic Association’s official rules state:”(The crux of the matter is that the athlete should not be enjoying thebenefits of natural testosterone predominance normally seen in a male)6. Conditions that should be allowed:(a) Those conditions that accord no advantage over other females:- Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete -previously called testicular feminization);- Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoidmalignancy);- Turner’s syndrome.(b) Those conditions that may accord some advantages but neverthelessacceptable:- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia;- Androgen producing tumors;- Anovulatory androgen excess (polycystic ovary syndrome).”Santhi Soundarajan should *never* have had her medals taken from her. Women with CAIS – Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome – *cannot* benefit from testosterone to gain muscle mass. They are disadvantaged, rather than advantaged, compared with Standard Factory Model (SFM) women. This was blantant transphobia, and the injustice still has to be corrected.Birth CertificateCaster Semenya’s is Female. But that’s neither necessary nor sufficient. For example, people with 5ARD syndrome or 17BHDD syndrome look somewhat, mostly, or completely female at birth. They usually have female birth certificates. They masculinise later though, ending up looking somewhat, mostly, or completely male – “protogynous dichogamous pseudohermaphroditism”. They are immune to testosterone, but not DHT, a more powerful form of testosterone that is produced at puberty (and incidentally is responsible for male-pattern baldness).GenderWhile it’s mainly a social construct, varying between times and cultures, certain sex-specific behaviour is based – sometimes weakly, sometimes strongly – on sexually-differentiated neurology. Women think, emote, smell, and hear differently from men. Basically, if you find the same behaviour pattern in Pittsburgh and Patagonia, in Pnomh Penh and Paris, among Aleut Eskimos and Australian Aboriginals, it has some biological basis. You can see the differences in the neuroanatomy in fMRI scans and autopsies. But Gender, like Sex, is not a strict binary. It has two distinct peaks, but there’s quite a bit in the valley between.URLs available if anyone is interested.

  • Oh yes, transsexuals – again from the IAAF policy:”5. Reconstructive surgery and sex reassignment- if sex change operations as well as appropriate hormone replacementtherapy are performed before puberty then the athlete is allowed tocompete as a female- if the sex change and hormone therapy is done after puberty then theathlete has to wait two years after gonadectomy before a physical andendocrinological evaluation is conducted”It has been deemed that after 2 years of hormone therapy, any advantage is negated, or at least no greater, than advantages frpm PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) or other allowable natural variations, and is offset by disadvantages in bone density etc. Fewer muscles moving greater mass. It’s a reasonable, even conservative, approximation.Maybe I should mention that I’m Intersexed. One of the truly rare conditions too. In 1985 I was diagnosed at a fertility clinic as an Intersexed male, with Partial (not complete) Androgen Insensitivity syndrome. I looked like a linebacker, apart from some skeletal and other anomalies of a personal nature. In 2005, much to everyone’s astonishment, I had a partial female puberty, and after the same kind of tests this poor girl is being subject to, I was re-diagnosed as a “severely androgenised non-pregnant woman”. By then I didn’t look remotely male.My gender identity has always been female, if somewhat geeky and tomboyish. I’d picked the name “Zoe” at age 10, when I thought I’d grow up to be like all the other girls, and the silly mistake of putting me in with the boys would be corrected. Gender Identity is a consequence of sexually-differentiated neurology, and transsexuals have cross-gendered brains compared with the rest of their bodies.This causes *intense* discomfort and psychological stress. In order to do such everyday tasks as walking, they have to over-ride hard-wired instincts so as not to appear too different.I know, my situation was similar. But when you look like a footballer – and get dragooned into the high school rugby team because of your beefy build – rather than the cheerleader you should be, well, there’s not much point arguing the issue. It feels horrid, perverse and un-natural, but you have to do the best you can to build as good a life as you can.About 50% of trans people suicide if they don’t get treatment to align brain and body. I can easily understand why.

    • Hi Zoe — I just want to thank you for clearing up the questions that most of us have little knowledge about. Thanks, also, for telling your story. TMV isn’t necessarily a safe space, but I certainly appreciate hearing about your experiences and your perspective, and I’m sure that others do as well.

  • @roro80 – thanks. For my sins, I’ve had to become something of an expert in the area, just to address my own health concerns. Unfortunately, you don’t have to know very much to qualify, this is a highly specialised area with very few researchers working in it worldwide. I’m a theoretician and collator rather than a researcher, putting together seperate strands from genetics, neurology, endocrinology, and psychology.I’ve been fortunate enough to be in contact with some of the big names – Italiano, Drantz, Diamond, Ecker – and we’re gradually getting a handle on it. The main questions regard neurology, and just *how* a feminised brain leads to a female gender identity, what are the mechanics of it.As regards my personal situation – the change in 2005, while extremely welcome, rather turned my life upside-down. I’d invested 47 years in building a life as a male. While I wasn’t very good at that in some ways (I’ve *never* understood men), I did manage to be a decent father(!) and husband.Now I don’t have to pretend, and can live without the stress of constantly over-riding instincts, it’s more relaxing. I have greater capabilities than I did before, and can deal with problems others think are insuperable without raising a sweat. Good job, some of the problems have been *interesting*, and it will take a court case before the EU court of human rights to get my birth certificate corrected. But that’s nothing compared to the task I had of explaining to my son that his Daddy is actually biologically female…So issues of “safe space” don’t worry me. I try to educate – or at least put the data in front of people so they can educate themselves. I’m a monster of arrogance and ego, but even I’m not arrogant enough to tell people what to think, I just elucidate the facts and encourage them to form their own opinions.Technically, I’m a “protandrous dichogamous pseudohermaphrodite”. But I prefer “woman with an interesting medical history, and an unusual past”. Or just plain “woman” for short.Thanks once more – and if anyone would like the URLs and references that back up what I say, just ask.