Friday, August 28, 2009

Usain Bolt revealed as female: the obsession with intersex, Caster Semenya and binary

A relatively unknown girl from Seshego, South Africa wanted to play football/soccer, and wanted to play it so badly she joined the boys team, the only girl in the football team in Fairlie, a village in South Africa's northern Limpopo Province. Her name was Caster Semenya and her dream was to play for South Africa’s women's national team, Banyana Banyana. So far, no different than most females I know who ended up joining boys teams because they wanted to push themselves in sports: they wanted the competition.

"Often I would ask her why she kept playing soccer, and with boys. All she said was 'It's because I like it'," said Dorcas (mother), who bears a striking resemblance to Caster. (Aug 20, 09 in The Star).

The box of ‘femininity’ and the default of female is so rigidly upheld, even against the reality of diversity of females, that women are constantly being thrown out of it; or accused of not ‘being female.’

This is what happened to Caster Semenya, when the IAAF announced a prolonged ‘sex test’ was needed to find out if Caster was a female BEFORE she was to run the finals in the Berlin World Championship. She is 18, and now the world is debating, or deciding, on the most surface appearances if she is a female, male or ‘shemale’ (enlightened US commentor). Because she won.

MSN news explains why Semenya was singled out as a suspect male, and athletic cheater: “in addition to her athletic prowess, it's her traits that society considers masculine: ripped muscles, a solemn demeanor and grooming perceived as dowdy”. Yes, she is not femme. She is solemn, she is shy. She even has a lower register voice and shrugs a lot in front of cameras. Unlike female boxers who demonstrate with high heels and french nails (the more traditionally masculine the sport, the greater the feeling and need to compensate with stereotypical feminine actions), Semenya acts like she does at home.

The ANC (African National Congress) condemned the public actions of an investigation if she is a man because she is muscular, strong, and fast, "Such comments can only serve to portray women as being weak," the ANC said.

So why is this post titled that, Usain Bolt, the Jamaican (male) who ran to a world record, is a female? That’s because currently ‘sex tests’ aren’t. It isn’t really an athletic test when only one gender has to do it: it is a test on social norms. So boys are stronger and faster than girls, and if a girl is strong or fast then she really is a boy. So until some IAAF official spends weeks with a psychologist, an internist, and someone sticks a gloved hand up the world champion’s ass to check for a prostate, his 9.5 100 meter world record is too fast for a man……he’s is obviously a woman. Because that is the exact binary thinking and testing now being applied and have been applied to women. Men are for exempt, because no man cares until a woman starts competing in a way that threatens social norms (Paula Radcliffe, the Marathoner whose record at 2:15:25 was getting very close to the men’s record, was accusing of cheating by running in a ‘mixed’ race with the elite male runners), then the accusations start. As one comment on the BBC said, since Bolt has the exact same things which are marking Semenya for ‘sex testing’, he should be tested for being a ‘god’. No, we don’t believe anymore in the hierarchy of animals, lunatics, disabled, children, women, men, gods (well, a lot of people do from comments but let’s move on). So if Bolt has the same issues, his sex should be tested also….since after all: muscular, speaks easily in interviews, smiles a lot, shaved legs, - obviously a female!

In a blog essay I did two years ago on this history of Athletics, particularly the Olympics, it was noted that women were never meant to attend except to applaud the winning males. And while the Olympics might have equal number of events, the committee which decides that women don’t box or do long downhill ski jumps is primarily male. The same committee which decided that “women were to be permitted no races longer than 200 meters from 1928 until 1960.” Yes, the ‘weaker’ sex.

Beyond muscles and speed, what made Semenya due for a sex test was her facial hair and the revelation that she had higher than ‘average’ levels of testosterone ‘for a female’ (again, since men are not tested, males are not reassigned to race with women based on their testosterone levels, though it would be interesting to hear the screaming from men world wide if this took place). CNN found that 20 million females in the USA remove facial hair once a week. That’s about 1 in 6 females…..or is that males? Of course not, it is the great open secret among women that we have facial hair, and some have a lot.

Menopause for example makes the ratio of testosterone to estrogen different and can bring about facial hair (Is Semenya going through early onset menopause?). But Hirsutism (a condition which causes facial hair) also causes deepening of the voice and even cessation of menstruation. Overproduction of androgens for the ovary, adrenal gland or other medical conditions like polycystic ovarian disease/PCOS (which Linda’s doctor tested her for simply on build!) which causes facial hair and irregular menstruation. Oral contraceptives (yes, the not getting pregnant ones) containing norgestrel may cause hair growth as does DHEA, which can help libido, or build muscle. There are over a dozen ways females can be muscular, have facial hair and a deeper throat and not have to defend that in world press because most doctors are aware of them. And with intense physical training, either 16% of heterosexuals in the USA are actually married to men (who also bore their children) because they have facial hair. Accept that, or realize that the idea of having a ‘sex test’ is actually a horrific ‘name and shame’ for those women who publicly look or act in traditional masculine ways, like this pro tennis player.
As good as her performance was, Semenya’s time of 1:55:45 in the final is still nowhere near Kratochvilova's record of 1:53:28. In fact, it is not even in the top ten.

But she is being punished in some ways for the definition of female beauty, which is based primarily on whites. Or as was pointed out in Body Politic, “U.S. Olympic softball star Jennie Finch appeared on Fox News. No sooner had she walked off screen than co-host Jon Scott described her value as an Olympic athlete:“A great representative: blond, blue-eyed, and extremely talented.”

It is true that if you look at Semenya competing against other black South African women, she is taller and maybe a little more broad shouldered but nothing that is significantly different. Certainly nothing to arouse the kind of comments on BBC and other US news sites from males: “Nobody is stoping Semenya from enjoying life to the fullest,…but the women's sports are for women, not for the intersex or whatever she/he is.”, (another talking about Semenya at the WORLD FINALS), “The fact that he didn't care about the other weaker/less competitive females shows how big a cheater/loser he is.” – the women at the Berlin world finals were weak and less competitive? That hasn’t been my experience. Another quote: “Man with minor female features. Hermaphrodite or intersex I'm not sure what the hell this person is but he's definitely not a female. Weird how they let him compete against "real" females.”” So now a picture of Semenya against the women at the Berlin finals, and suddenly without the flowing hair, the light body build she looks completely different. But that doesn’t make her a male.

These comments are a fraction of what has been said this last week and we now see why people with intersex conditions (ambiguous genitalia and intersex conditions are 1 in 2000 births, which means you know some, there are some in your church, there are some in your work, and so what?!) stay so secretly in the closet. And why women with facial hair are desperate to hide it. Because public shaming and not being a ‘real female’ are going to be the result, if not spoken so openly as this, it still occurs, and who knows what different doctors are going to say. If a pain doctor spent more time inspecting me, and made me open my mouth in order to observe a ‘real marfan’s female’ in the flesh than check my pain, what comments and action await someone with an intersex condition listed for any doctor, specialist or others to act on?

Ljungqvist, the head of the Olympic Medical committee says these tests are to ‘protect’ the female athletes. Errrr? From July 30, 08 NYTimes, “At first, women were asked to parade nude before a panel of doctors to verify their sex. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, officials switched to a chromosomal test.” No males have been found by these or other ‘sex tests’ but only females with the variation of chromosomal and other medical conditions as displayed in the population: “In 1967, the Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was barred from the sport because she failed the chromosomal test, even though she had passed the nude test a year earlier. In the 1980s, the Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez Patino was disqualified because the test revealed, to her surprise, that she was born with a Y chromosome. Her eligibility was reinstated in 1988.” The Olympics has dropped the general ‘sex test’ because it is a waste of time, and only produces hysterical headlines. Yet they still exist in Athletics, and they still exist for only one gender: females.

So bring in the rubber gloves and ‘cough’ say I, let’s make this an equal playing field. When people live and train at high altitude no one cares, when people like me are taller by a genetic condition, no one cares, and to the Olympic committee (and soon the IAAF) when it comes to intersex or even sex changes, no one cares. What people care about is the transgression of the females to remain looking like how society wants them to appear. That is bunk, and as long as this persecution remains, women with facial hair, women with thin head hair, women with mastectomies, women with intersex conditions, and women who do not fall into the accepted parameters of socially female will be persecuted also. So Usain Bolt, you are strong, muscular and excel at your sport, all the qualities that marks a female for a ‘sex test.’ I submit that Bolt do the right thing, submit for one of his own, or (if only) blow this whole hypocrisy open by announcing his female gender. We accept him as male, why not give Semenya the same dignity?


wendryn said...

Read the post. I agree that the definitions are very skewed. Not sure what else to say, though, other than that I wish men would get the f*** over the idea that women who are too fast or too strong must actually be men, because women couldn't possibly do that.

It still makes me mad. Probably always will.

Victor Kellar said...

Very interesting discussion. I read about the African girl. This kind of stuff baffles me. Maybe because I was never a jock and my sisters are so athletic, I'm just not threatened by it. I've also never been one for definitons and labels. I grew up at a time where I was critisized for having long hair; that was the women's realm There is an evangelical church that says women can't have short hair, must wear skirts, etc .. and of course religions that just enrobe women completely. I guess men, or particularly men in power are scared of women. Probably goes back to these old systems where men convinced themselves that it was their strength that defined them; to be defined by strength, you always need something weaker upon which to wield it, no matter how you define it

yanub said...

My daughter and I were discussing Semenya just the other day. We both think she looks fairly masculine (it's mostly because of the lack of body fat and the increased muscle tone that all top athletes develop), but we also think it doesn't matter what she is biologically. She considers herself a woman, her family considers her a woman, her community considers her a woman. Where it is truly important, she is a woman, she is her daddy's little girl. If she had turned out to be male in any physical way, she would still be a woman. If she had turned out to be male in every physical way, she would still be a woman.

Of course, there is a reason to check levels of male hormones. But that reason exists for men and women both! All competitors should be subject to screening to make sure that there isn't abuse of male hormones in order to pump up performance. And that's really a bigger problem among men than among women, since women athletes largely don't want to risk the side effects. So, yeah, boys, line up! Blood work time! But chromosomes or physical characteristics? Nobody's business.

Lene Andersen said...

Right on - I'm headed for the barricades. Bunch of sexist arses.

Neil said...

Let's see... I'm reading this while wearing a sarong; I've had long hair in the past (grew it out twice), and I freely admit that I'm more interested in skirts than trousers when people-watching. Should *I* be heading off for gender tests? Oh, the shame! What WOULD my wife and three children say?

My wife would giggle. She's mean. She also has a thicker build than some women. Should she go for gender testing? I'd giggle.

The term for Caster Semenya when I was growing up was "Tomboy." Get over it, IAAF!

I don't watch professinal or international sports any more; they're too commercial, too chemical-laced, and too political. And I'm not threatened by athletic females, though I do admire their grace and stamina.

Personally, I'd like see men play hockey the way Canadian university women do; less contact makes the game faster and more interesting. I would also love to see the NHL switch to ringette; having watched a national championship for teens, I'm in awe of that game.

And by the way, the sarong is a traditionally male garment in Sri Lanka, and males wear tubular and rectangular sarongs (by many names) throughout Asia and the south Pacific, and in the highlands of Scotland. And men were waring skirts long before women stole our trousers. So there!

Love and zen hugs,

FridaWrites said...

Eloquent post. I read about Semenya earlier this week and was shocked. I know competing children are sometimes accused of not being girls or of not being their biological age (competing in the wrong category to gain an advantage).

The accusations come fast with women who don't follow every norm--not wearing makeup or having short hair or having an interest that's masculine. Being different in just one way and conforming in every other can lead to such accusations. Someone who defies many norms is often tormented.

I hope Semenya finds some positive comments and support among all the meanness in the media. Yes, the feminized ideal to which people are held is western and depends heavily on advertising from cosmetics firms and fashion.

As far as intersex people go, I think they should be able to compete as they choose. If someone is living as a woman, why shouldn't they compete as women?

Really great writing. I was shocked by the forced gynecology visit in particular that she had to endure; thanks for writing about that. I don't think any male athletes have been accused of being female; funny (not really) how that works.

FridaWrites said...

Also, this whole debacle reminds me of what happened with Oscar Pistorius, that people claimed he had an unfair advantage from his prosthetic legs.

Cereus Sphinx said...

The way we do sex and gender here is full of fail.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I haven't stopped by your blog for a while. I loved this post. You hit on every argument I've made about this subject plus other ways of viewing it that I hadn't brought to the forefront of my mind.

Also thanks for the postcard. I loved the extra stickers and comments.


Diane J Standiford said...

I find her sexy. Does that make ME a male or female? But wait...I am a man trapped in a woman's body, with thin feminie fingers, 5'6", and have to shave every day only in last few years, though my ovaries were removed due to cancer over 13 years lover of 30 years is a woman---what the eff AM I?? Good thing I don't give a damn. I am ME. Every human should be allowed the RIGHT to be themselves. No questions asked.
Great post, as usual!

Raccoon said...

You don't often write about "political" stuff. This was fun.

And yes, the male centric view towards things needs to change.

Although, I really do not find bulked up female weight lifters particularly attractive.

Of course, the overly bulked up male weight lifters are even worse...

One Sick Mother said...

Great post, Elizabeth. And you are right. Men aren't questioned for a lot of things for which women are unduly scrutinized or criticized; chronic illness being a big one.

Most people probably don't remember that Fatima Whitbread went through the same kind of ordeal in the UK in the 80s. I particularly remember how mean the tabloid press were about and to her -just because she was different (an immigrant, for starters). It's riodiculous.

also Yanub made an excellent point: Gender identity is in the brain/perception of the individual. No-where else.

Kate J said...

Couldn't agree more about Caster Semenya, I mean this is an 18 year old girl from a small African village, and she has been humiliated and ridiculed by the world's media. And for what? For being a great athlete.
Love & peace
(now in Edmonton, Alberta)

e said...

Great posting and discussion, Beth! I get angry over the stupid ideas the media and others perpetuate about gender, looks and what is "normal" or "correct," especially the punishment and questioning of one's gender because of appearance or abilities...

Sexism, racism and other "isms" are obviously at work here. Such a waste of time and energy. We really should learn to get past these issues, something that probably won't happen quickly enough. I really feel sorry for this athlete and others who are subjected to this nonsense.

Sandy said...

Great post. Just wanted to say Amen to it.

Elizabeth McClung said...


Wendryn: That's it exactly, if a woman is outperforming, then there is something wrong! What kind of strange thinking is that - makes me mad too.

Victor: I guess what I don't understand is that sports is about competition. For me, competing with someone who has a similiar or higher skill is a high - as I learn about myself and the sport. So if females start performer better, why would that not be welcomed by the athletes - actually it isn't the athletes complaining but the people putting on the 'show' - and the 'public' (whoever that is these days - I have never met a 'public', have you?). But still, running fast in a race is good, isn't it?

Yanub: I don't disagree that she she has some facial features more typical in men, but then I've been to some cities where 40% or more of the women had very strong jaws (munich) or other features. Even in Victoria, there are parts where I look up because of so many women who have low voices, and I was self conscious of my lower pitch voice in Wales where there is a nice high lilt, while here, I am the one with the high pitched voice shops full of women. Okay! Doesn't make any of us guys.

I agree - the olympic committee abandoned the 'sex test' or 'gender test' for good reasons and I think the rest of athletics should follow - it is ludicrious that an athelete can be qualified to go to the olympics (gender free testing) but excluded from competiting to qualify due to an IAAF decision that they can't compete in their gender catagory (or any catagory).

Lene: Exactly, the joy of power chairs is I actually am a threat to toes again!

Feroz said...

Great post, thanks!