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You Run Like a Girl…No Wait, You Don't

caster-semenya-001Caster Semenya has a problem.  She’s too good a runner to be a girl.  The 18-year old women’s 800-meter gold medalist at the world championship track and field competition in Berlin last week has had her medal withheld until an investigation of her sex has been completed.

The reason for the investigation is not clear, the International association of Athletics Federations simply says there is “ambiguity” regarding Semenya’s gender, and her eligibility to compete as a woman has to be determined.

Sex-testing, which, until very recently was required of all athletes competing as women BEFORE being allowed into high-profile competitions like the Olympics, has in the past few years, been relegated to an appeals process after the event rather than a prerequisite to compete.  It seemed like progress when this change was made, but now there is the question of who gets put this the appeal and why.  All kinds of lovely stereotypes can now rear their heads as some women are considered to be “obviously” female while others are “obviously” suspect.  Before you say, “well of course it’s obvious,” consider Androgen Insensitivity, an intersex condition in people of XY chromosal typing who develop as not just women, but often have more stereotypically womanly qualities, like less body hair, better skin, and more voluptuous secondary sex characteristics than average women.

The fact is Caster Semenya has spent her life as a girl and is now a talented young woman with a great career ahead of her.  To take that career away because of a test that has changed and shifted in its technique–and thus in its definition of “male” and “female” would be the height of cruelty (supposing such a test disqualifies her, which it hasn’t yet).

Because it’s hard to agree on what counts as an intersex condition, it’s hard to pinpoint the numbers of people born with them every year.  But a decent estimate, offered by the Intersex Society of North America is 1 in 1500 births.  Parents with babies presenting reproductive anomalies or uncertain gender are often not expecting it and are taken by surprise when it occurs.  Because of this, organizations like ISNA have some guidelines for helping parents make a judgement about what to do when a baby is born with an intersex condition.  Generally, no surgery is recommended if not necessary from a health standpoint.  Instead, a gender is assigned for social purposes and the child is allowed to grow up and gradually make gender and surgery decisions for herself or himself.  For ISNA’s guidelines, intersex FAQs and links to support groups, check out their website.

image: Thomas Lohnes AFP/Getty Images

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