Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya and 'gender-testing'

I'll resist the urge to rant about how patently absurd it is to 'gender-test', given the impossibility of finding an exact scientific standard that expresses a common biological truth among all men or women, or a single (or even short list of) biological difference that clearly delineates one group from the other. In fact, I'll leave it at that.

A bunch of things are annoying me about all the attention that runner Caster Semenya's ostensible 'failure' of the gender-test - that is, it was revealed that she's intersex, that she has testes where her ovaries were expected to be - has produced. Foremost is the disturbing regularity with which news outlets are reporting the test results as if Semenya is some entirely undiscovered breed of humanity.

She isn't - Anne Fausto-Sterling lists some three-dozen different medically-defined sex variations that are collectively called intersex, and estimates that some 2% of the world's population fits one of those categories. (I've seen more conservative definitions and estimates, but even these would put the number of intersexed people across the globe in the millions.) She isn't even the first intersex person to be identified after medalling in a track and field event. More recently, a total of 23 women at the '92 and '96 Olympics were DQed for failing a DNA test. But, I suppose, the difference there is that they were tested prior to racing. Which is why no one noticed or cared.

Strangely, the wholly problematic tradition of sex and gender-testing in international sport - a 70 year long tradition - hasn't been contextualized or addressed at all. One would think that responsible journalism would note that it was commonplace in the 60s for female athletes to participate in a "nude parade", that the earliest genetic tests focused exclusively, and rather arbitrarily, on the presence of a "clump" of chromatin, and that failing the test doesn't necessarily indicate a chemical or biological advantage for the athlete. (In the majority of failed tests, in fact, the athletes displayed no other evidence - physically or hormonally - that they weren't normatively female.) Also, I obviously lied about saying that I wouldn't rant about gender-testing.

To their credit, I've haven't found a news outlet that has gone so far as to state that Semenya is 'actually' a man. There's a certain distress in their response to her ambiguity - and a lot of effort is taken to avoid using gendered-pronouns - but at least they're willing to entertain the possibility of ambiguity. Now if only they could actually use the opportunity to spread some understanding, rather than make it seem like something of a freak show.

(Note: Tavia Nyong'o has written a particularly good synopsis and analysis of the issues here.)

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