Young South African runner Caster Semenya is being treated with revolting indecency. It was revolting for Australia’s Daily Telegraph to get excited about its “scoop” without thinking about the human being whose most private self is being paraded for public comment. It’s revolting that people seem to think that “hermaphrodites” (a term that should be erased, forever) purposely disguise themselves to take medals away from the “real women” that deserve them. Everyone who has neglected to consider the person at the heart of this story needs to feel ashamed of themselves and then read Jeffrey Eugenides’ brilliant Middlesex, immediately. The fictional tale of a young intersex person in late ’70s Detroit, it’s an epic family saga, a rollicking ride through a juicy bit of American history—and a touching personal story that illuminates the emotional wreckage of being “different” in such an intimate way.
Sport officials have known that there are more than two sexes since as far back as 1932, when Poland’s Stella Walsh won the Olympic gold in sprinting before being “revealed” as having both male and female sex characteristics. More recently, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her medal for “failing” her gender test after the 2006 Asian games—she’s come out in support of Semenya, saying that the humiliation she faced led to such severe depression that she attempted suicide. This isn’t a new situation, so I’m not sure why there aren’t rules about privacy and protocol, to stop young people’s hearts from being ripped out publicly, again and again.
I’m not a huge sports fan, but my youngest brother is, and he sent me a really smart email arguing against sex categories in sport. Here are some excerpts. Read and enjoy—and if anyone is aggregating pro-Semenya posts to encourage her in this very dark time: Caster, you were born to run. Do so with pride.
Guest post, by Mystery Brother
The whole point of sports (especially individual sports, and perhaps especially track and field) is to award people for having superior bodies. We all know that biology plays the largest role—comparing two athletes’ blood cell and fast-twitch muscle counts allows for a pretty accurate prediction of who’s going to win the race. For some reason, we celebrate their victories as if everyone was on an even playing field and there’s something special about their character that allowed them to win. We’re celebrating their superior bodies. but then we impose a random, arbitrary separation, where if your body is too good for the particular task you have to compete in a separate category.
The reason I think female only races/leagues, etc. make sense right now is because our socialization does not encourage girls’ participation in athletics to the extent that it encourages males. We’re not even rewarding the best bodies. Many people have noted that the female body is actually better suited for both long distance running, and kicking in football. Catharine Mackinnon has said she expects women to outrun men in marathons within a couple generations.
If we’re trying to reward the best bodies, the argument that “the average” man has more muscle than “the average” woman doesn’t make any sense—both men and women (and all people not so easily classified) are on a spectrum of athleticism, including things like testosterone levels, white/red blood cell counts, etc. It doesn’t make sense that men at the bottom of their bell curve are forced to compete against men at the top of the curve, but women at the top of their curve (who are superior to many men), can’t. (DB’s note: golfer Michelle Wie has chosen to play in men’s leagues—she hasn’t won yet, but she’s still trying) If we justify it based on differences in biology, we’re missing the point and ignoring the fact that sports are *trying* to reward superior biology.
There’s an amazing list of sports that used to be mixed sex (such as archery), until women began legitimately competing with men (and beating them, like Rusty Kanokogi, the Mother of Judo), at which point the sexes were separated. Often, the rules for the women league are altered ever so slightly, arguably just so comparisons couldn’t easily be made (think: WNBA playing with a different ball and shorter quarters; marathons being different lengths for men and women, etc.)
In a world with no sex classifications in sports, women will be properly recognized and rewarded for their achievements. More importantly, no one would be put throught the shit Caster Semenya is going through, ever again.