Friday, September 11, 2009

Next week's show: Caster Semenya and false notions of gender in sports

Our guest on Sept. 16 will be Dave Zirin, author of A People's History of Sports in the United States and sports editor of The Nation. We'll be talking about the case of South African runner Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old world champion whose status as a woman has been challenged over accusations that she "looks like a man." Although folks who have shared dressing rooms with Semenya confirm that she is female, track officials are subjecting her to gender tests to determine if she might be intersex. If they determine that she is, she may be disqualified from competition in the future.

Zirin and Sherry Wolf (author of Sexuality and Socialism and a guest on our Oct. 14 show) recently wrote a commentary on the episode for The Nation. They talk about the problems with gender binarism and how the false notion that there are only two gender expressions (people with XY chromosomes who meet the social expectations of men, and people with XX chromosomes who meet the social expectations of women) ruins lives and careers. You can read it here.

Semenya has responded to the scrutiny by getting dolled up for the cover of a South African youth magazine. Sports commentator Chris Chase, who otherwise tries to show sympathy with Semenya and gives nod to freedom of gender expression, reflects our society's pervasive sexism with the comment, "it's safe to say that this is the first time that Semenya has truly looked like an 18-year old woman."

Australian newspapers reported today that the gender tests Semenya was forced to undergo reveal that she is intersex, with gonads that are internal (usually a characteristic of women) and produce testosterone (usually a characteristic of men). The International Association of Athletics Federations, which required the gender testing, says it has not released the results and will neither confirm nor deny the rumor.

Even if it true that Semenya has higher levels of testosterone than other women, it does not necessarily give her a hormonal advantage over women runners. In most people, including most women, testosterone can enhance muscle development, strength and endurance. But in one intersex condition -- complete androgen insensitivity syndrome -- a person with typically male XY chromosomes is born female and develops at puberty into a woman. She has breasts and a vagina but her gonads produce testosterone. However, the testosterone has no effect on her sexual or muscular development because her body doesn't recognize it.

Gender testing ruined the athletic career of Spanish runner María José Martínez Patiño, a woman with androgen insensitivity syndrome. Even though she had no hormonal advantage over other female runners, she was kicked off the Spanish national team in 1985 when tests showed she had XY chromosomes. She had all of her international running medals revoked and lost her university scholarship. She was barred from international track competitions until 1988, when the International Association of Athletics Federations reinstated her after considering the medical evidence and concluded that she was, indeed, a woman. She trained for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but 7 years older and with a gap in her training, Patiño missed the cutoff in the qualifying races by one-tenth of a second.

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