The persecution of Caster Semenya -- sport and intersex people's rights

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Caster Semenya.

By Farida Iqbal

September 20, 2009 -- Eighteen-year-old South African track athlete Caster Semenya has done nothing wrong. Yet she has been accused of deceiving the world about her sex. There is nothing wrong with Semenya’s body. Yet her body has been paraded in front of the world by the mass media as if she were a sideshow freak.

Semenya is a talented athlete. Yet her career is at stake.

Semenya won the 800 metres in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships on August 19. She was accused by the international media of having won the race due to her unfair disadvantage of “really” being a man.

Semenya, like many other female athletes, has been subjected to sexist judgement of what a female body is supposed to look like.

Semenya is an intersex woman. But intersex women are not the only women who have been subjected to such scrutiny. The accusation of looking “too masculine” has always been used to degrade female athletes, including tennis great Martina Navratilova. For years the media focused on her highly developed biceps.

Semenya was subjected to invasive “gender tests” (actually testing biological sex, not gender). The test results were leaked to the international mass media. Australia’s Daily Telegraph was the first to run the story, revealing Semenya has internal testes and no womb. This may or may not be true.

If it is true, it is a discovery that would prompt any 18 year-old to do some profound soul searching about their identity, their relationship to their body, and their relationship with the world.

Ideally this soul searching would be done in the person’s own time, in their own way.

Yet for Semenya there was no question of privacy. The most intimate details of her body were revealed to the world in lurid headlines in the international mass media: “Semenya has male sex organs” (September 11 Sydney Daily Telegraph) “a woman… and a man!” (September 10, “Is SHE a he?” (August 19, Melbourne Herald Sun).

Semenya is now traumatised and has gone into hiding. She is not the first athlete to have had this experience. In 2006, Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan was found to be intersex. She was stripped of her gold medal and publicly ostracised. The discovery ended her sports career and she attempted suicide.

Intersex people

An intersex person is somebody with male and female biological characteristics. There are many different ways this can happen. A person with XY chromosomes can be insensitive to testosterone (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or AIS). Different clusters of cells in the same person’s body can have differences in their biological sex (known as mosaicism). A person can have XXY chromosomes rather than the typical XY or XX. There is nothing abnormal about this. It is all part of the natural variation in humans. Yet there is no clear cut dividing line between who is intersex and who is not. All of us have both “male” and “female” characteristics.

All males had female bodies once in the womb. Testosterone is supposed to be the “male hormone” and estrogen is supposed to be the “female hormone”, but all human beings produce both.

The dominant understanding of biological sex in our society is that all human beings are either male or female: there is nothing in between. The existence of intersex people exposes the falsity of this very crude notion. It shows that biological sex is a continuum.

The binary understanding of gender is certainly not universal across different cultures. Outside the West, many of the world’s people have a much more compassionate, sophisticated and realistic view.

The Bugis people in Indonesia recognise five distinct genders. They see intersex people, or “Bissu”, as a legitimate third sex. Rather than being vilified, Bissu are revered as priests. They are understood to be a combination of the other four genders, and are therefore able to mediate between them in sacred ritual.

Should intersex people be barred from sport?

It has been argued that intersex people have an unfair advantage over women in sport because they have male physical characteristics, such as a higher testosterone level. Yet such male physical characteristics have a cultural significance that is not necessarily the same as their actual effect on the body.

People with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome often have a higher level of testosterone than non-AIS women. People with the syndrome do not develop fully fledged male bodies because their bodies respond to testosterone poorly. Their bodies produce more testosterone to compensate for the body’s poor response to it.

The AIS Support Group in Victoria says it is possible that Semenya has AIS (if the leaks to the media about her body are true). So even if Semenya’s testosterone level is three times that of non-intersex women, it does not necessarily give her an unfair advantage.

But more importantly, “maleness” is not the ultimate advantage in sport. Other factors, such as the athlete’s nutritional level, training, muscle strength and length of their legs have much more impact on sporting prowess.

Perhaps it would be more realistic to stop segregating athletes according to gender at all. Perhaps athletes should be graded according to these factors instead, as weight lifters are divided according to body weight.

There should be an end to sex testing in sport. It is a discriminatory practice used to bar intersex people from competing, and it is meaningless when there is no natural, clear cut dividing line between male and female. Many athletic organisations have some understanding of this already.

Intersex athletes are not necessarily barred from competing — only if they are found to have an unfair advantage. According to its website, the IAAF isn’t due to decide on Semenya’s case until November. In the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, eight women with Y chromosomes were allowed to compete in women’s events, said a September 9 article on the Science of Sport website.

Intersex rights, queer rights and feminism

Many “experts” have been interviewed during the mainstream media’s frenzied response to the leaks about Semenya. What’s missing are the perspectives of intersex people themselves.

In most of the world, gays and lesbians have not yet won full legal equality. In the First World, we have come far enough that our main battle now is for the right to marry.

Queers have already won many other basic civil rights: the right to work; the decriminalisation of gay sex; and the right not to be chemically castrated on the basis of a classification of our sexuality as an illness.

Intersex people, meanwhile — as well as having to fight for the right to marry — still come up against archaic laws and barbaric medical practices that belong in medieval times. Perhaps worst of all, they come up against society’s ignorance.

The gay and lesbian struggle sets a precedent for other sexual and gender minorities. Inspired by this historical example, intersex people in the US began politically organising in the mid-1990s in the Intersex Society of North America.

(The ISNA is now defunct. According to activists from the Organisation Intersex International, ISNA has unfortunately been co-opted by medical professionals, rather than intersex activists. These medical professionals have founded a new organisation called the "Accord Alliance" in its place. The Accord Alliance has rejected the term "intersex" and adopted the pathologising term "disorders of sexual development" instead. It has even gone so far as to promote medical conferences supportive of intersex genital mutilation. The Organisation Intersex International is now the world's largest advocacy group for intersex rights.)

Previously isolated intersex people found each other over the internet and developed support networks, which became politicised over the issue of intersex genital mutilation.

It is still a standard practice in the United States and Australia that if a baby is born with a penis deemed too short by the doctor, or a clitoris deemed too long, it is amputated. A US group calling itself “Hermaphrodites with Attitude” formed to campaign against this barbaric practice. They picketed hospitals and medical conferences.

Intersex activists have not yet won an end to this genital mutilation. But there have been some positive outcomes from their campaign. Opinion about the practice is now divided in the medical community.

The campaign for equal marriage rights is today mobilising more people than any other queer rights campaign. Legislation discriminating against same-sex couples having the right to marry also commonly discriminates against intersex people.

Most intersex people identify either as male or female. Intersex people who are legally identified as male or female can marry the opposite sex. Yet a minority of intersex people do not identify as male or as female but as androgynous. These people, as well as intersex people who are same-sex attracted, are denied the right to marry by legislation that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

The campaign for equal marriage rights is commonly seen as a “gay marriage” campaign, yet we could do a lot more to embrace the concerns of intersex people. This would strengthen the unity of the campaign, and could increase the political confidence of intersex people.

In Australia, the next round of rallies for equal marriage rights will be on November 28. Organising committees should encourage intersex activists to speak. Other speakers should also be conscious to address intersex issues, including Semenya’s story.

The ostracism of Semenya doesn’t just affect intersex people. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are affected too. Semenya’s ostracism reinforces the rigid notion of binary gender, a notion that excludes all of us. In Australia, we have a particular responsibility to defend Semenya because it was the Australian media that led the world in ostracising her.

This is also a feminist issue. The incredible scrutiny under which women athletes perform, the media commentary about their supposed “masculine” bodies, and the pressure put on them to assert their “femininity” — by say, posing nude in men’s magazine’s — has nothing to do with their strength as athletes. It is related to society’s commodification and sexualisation of women’s bodies, and its unwillingness to recognise diversity.

[Farida Iqbal is a member of Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance of Australia. An earlier version of this article appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #811, September 23, 2009.]