CASTER ADRIFT

Say what you will about the gender binary world that people my age grew up in.  Yes, it was myopic, oppressive, small minded and hurtful to many, but it was simple.  That is the attraction of categories; they allow for sorting, which is what we yearn for when we are trying to “sort out” a complex world.

That being said, for a time, just sorting things out between the binary genders presented issues.  Take athletics, for example.  In almost all competitions recognized as sports, women were just not competitive with their male counterparts.  Accordingly, sports began as competitions in various activities conducted among men and teams of men only, with women rarely competing, even among themselves.  In time, women demanded, and the world accepted, a comparable though unequal range of competitions for and among women, although the process of expanding and supporting the nature and number of these competitions has been slow as society has unwound its presumptions about what is both becoming and safe for the fairer sex.  Fast forward to 2019, in which, notwithstanding this ingrained resistance to the participation of women in sports, there is virtually no category of athletic competition open to men in which women are not competing among themselves.

Into this world steps Caster Semenya, a 28-year-old middle distance runner from South Africa, who has recently emerged as a dominant force in the 800-metre distance in women’s track.  Caster’s dominance in her chosen event has been impressive, but not unprecedented.  There have been women athlete’s in various Olympic sports who have been more extraordinarily dominant over the years.  What made Caster more noteworthy was that she shared with a small number of those dominant women’s athletes: a subtle but unmistakably more masculine build and appearance.

In the past, this observation has been associated with speculation about the use of performance-enhancing drugs that altered the hormonal chemistry of the athlete to mimic, to some extent, that of males.  Suspicion of the use of such drugs by a generation of East German women’s athlete’s in various disciplines during the 70s and 80s has since been confirmed, and their strikingly androgynous appearance is accordingly reflexively associated with cheating.

Caster Semenya, however, is entirely different.  Her apparent androgyny is neither denied nor vilified.  It has been widely reported that she is in fact intersex, possessing the XY chromosome characteristic of male gender but, by virtue of unique complications in the expression of that genetic coding, she is without external male genitalia.  She has been raised as a female and self-identifies as such.  She is not a cheater; she is just Caster.

Caster Semenya creates a vexing problem for women’s sport.  Women sport was created as a protected category of competition because of the profound and intractable differences in biology between men and women.  Adjusted for differences in height and weight that can almost as easily occur among men, elite women athletes are profoundly challenged in terms of their athletic capacity relative to their male peers.  Without the protected category of women’s sport, no women, including Caster Semenya, would have any ability to meaningfully compete for local, national or world titles.  This is not a construct of the patriarchy; women’s sport was demanded by and created for women in defiance of the patriarchy.  It is the voices of Caster’s competitors that has raised the issue of Caster’s status, not the reactionary whining of misogynists, homophobes and transphobes.

So, like it or not, and regardless of the political incorrectness of the concept, the athletics world finds itself faced with the task of defining what a woman is in the context of athletic competition.  However respectful it would be to ask only how one identifies oneself in the oversimplified gender binary construct, in the context of elite athletics, where even women enjoy financial opportunity as a deserved consequence of achievement, that clearly can’t be the test.  The genetic division drawn between individuals possessing ‘XX’ and ‘XY’ chromosomes can generally be defended, but, in exceptional examples like Caster’s, the expression of this seemingly categoric genetic difference can be significantly muted.  The presence or absence of male genitalia is equally inapt; what ever advantage it is that men enjoy as athletes I know for sure that it is not that appendage that accounts for it (or if it is, I somehow haven’t yet figured out how to use it to help me run faster).

Alas, we are then tossed into the murky world of hormone levels to draw this critical line.  What track officials know is that while women, like men, differ widely within their gender-specific range of testosterone levels, it is among successful women’s middle-distance runners that higher testosterone seems to be most relevant.  As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations has determined that in these events (and, for now, only in these events, despite similar findings with respect to certain field events), an individual seeking to compete in the women’s category must not have a testosterone level higher than a specified maximum.  That maximum, it is worth noting, is at a level that is far outside of the high end of the normal range for women but beneath the low end of the normal range for men.

Caster Semenya’s testosterone level exceeds that stipulated maximum.  She is the first athlete to be required to take performance- (and likely health-) detracting drugs to participate in her best event in her chosen sport as a member of the gender with which she identifies.  Is that fair to Caster?  Absolutely not. But is there an alternative solution that both protects Caster Semenya’s right to compete as she is and preserves women’s sport as a protected category of athletic competition?

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