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Monday, August 24, 2009

The Meaning of Y

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Caster Semenya, the 18-year old world-champion runner from South Africa.   In response to concerns that Semenya is too fast and that her voice is too deep and that her build is too masculine, track and field’s governing body has arranged tests to ascertain her sex.  One Italian runner, Elisa Cusma, complained: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”  The concern is not that Semenya set out to fool the governing body.  The concern is that Semenya, who grew up as female, may in fact have sufficient male characteristics to be categorized as male.  As someone who writes about gender and race as social constructs and imperfect proxies, my fascination with the Semenya case goes beyond prurient curiosity.  For me, the controversy brings to mind the racial prerequisite cases from the early 1900s that Ian Haney Lopez has written about, such as United States v. Thind and Ozawa v. United States.  It also brings to mind Ariela Gross’s work on litigating whiteness.  Bust mostly, the controversy speaks volumes about the meaning of sex and gender.

            I have no idea what the outcome will be.  A gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist, and an expert on gender have all been asked to examine Semenya and weigh in on the issue.  Indeed, I can easily imagine a situation in which some tests will suggest Semenya is female, while other tests will suggest she is male.  Indeed, I can easily imagine a wringing of hands, a determination that Semenya is “different” and thus ineligible to compete “as a woman” or “as a man.”  For me, the real issue is not whether Semenya is male or female, but rather our compulsive need to understand sex and gender in binary terms, even when such binary thinking excludes significant segments on the population.  It is similar to the way we need to know whether someone is black or white, straight or gay, liberal or conservative, guilty or innocent, when the reality is often far more complicated.

A NY Times article speculates that whatever the outcome, 18-year old Semenya’s life will be forever changed.  And all of this makes me ask “what if?”  Since the election of President Obama, there has been talk, however premature, of living in a post-racial world.  Clearly a post-racial world seems something we should aspire to.  But how about a post-gender world?  Should that also be on the agenda?  What might it be like to live in a world in which the first question we ask when someone is pregnant is not “boy or girl”?  What might census data collection or Title VII or Title IX or marriage equality look like in such a world?  What might it be like to live in a world without “urinary segregation,” to borrow from Lacan?  Would it be possible to live in such a world?  Would we want to?  And can the law get us there?

Posted by Bennett Capers on August 24, 2009 at 07:32 AM in Gender, Science, Sports | Permalink


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Fully integrated competitions are not realistic. Compare the scores for the top 100 runners in the female and male lists, and so on, and integrate them. Few women would ever be involved in many sports.

So the sports groupings will stay separate, and that means lines must be drawn.

Yes, gender is not fully binary even as a biological matter at birth, but the few close cases are still tiny compared to the ongoing integration of ethnic and racial catgories. Social categories should not matter for the sports lines. Surgical alterations may be a harder call, but to avoid the extreme possibility of incentivizing sex changes for athletic gain, the simpler call is to stick to birth sex.

Posted by: anonner | Aug 26, 2009 12:11:05 PM

I agree with (the first) anon. In sport, a certain amount of line drawing is inevitable. It's not just gender. Does Israel get to compete in the European Championships? And what about Kazachstan? Like the EU, European sports bodies are periodically faced with the challenge of defining where Europe ends. They may not like it, and it may not be a reasonable question as a matter of geography, but somewhere a line has to be drawn.

When it comes to gender in sport, the raison d'être of having separate competitions for women implies that the biological criterion will have to be decisive. That means genetics, mostly. This person's identity, however important in most other contexts, has very little to do with it.

Posted by: Martin Holterman | Aug 26, 2009 10:00:39 AM

Let her have her victory!

Posted by: Wrongful Termination Lawyer | Aug 25, 2009 4:50:07 PM

anon, I think the problem with your argument is that it assumes that sex and gender are sufficiently binary (and ultimately biological) concepts such that sport could create meaningful and enforceable standards that would accurately separate the genders. Instead, Ms. Semenya's case might prove quite the opposite. She was raised a woman, identifies as a woman, has always known life as a woman... and what happens if these "experts" come back and rule that she is a man for purposes of the sport of running? Does that even make sense? Does that show that she is wrong about who she is or that the experts are wrong about what it means to be female or male? How is she supposed to deal with that ruling?

How would any sport organization be able to enforce such a standard where a person's lifelong identity and understanding of their own sex and gender turns out to be at odds with the sport's definition of their sex? And in what way could you separate a sport's definition of sex and the consequences of being defined in that arena as male or female from the society as a whole? In fact, isn't sport and its reliance on biological differences between sexes a huge part of how we as a society construct our understandings of both sex and gender? And how should a transgender person fit into your sports world? What about someone born male, raised male, who then decides to undergo surgery and hormone therapy to become female? Can she then compete as a woman in sports or as a man? And how should society view her? And what about intersex people who choose to identify as male or female or those who prefer to not have to choose a gender category? And who is going to make sure that how sports defines these categories does not have any role in how society does?

Perhaps the solution is to have more sports not separate into men and women, or perhaps it is that if someone has lived a sufficiently lengthy period of their life as female then they should be allowed to compete as female. I am not sure how to best work out a practical solution that recognizes sport as we know it and a person's own understanding of their gender identity (which obviously can be much more complicated than male/female). I am sure that it is good for more people to have to think about the relationship between social and biological understandings of sex and gender by having these discussions.

Posted by: Anon Recent Grad | Aug 24, 2009 10:22:18 AM

I wonder if the issue of binary gender identification can be separated into "sport" and "society" components. I see no reason why such binary systems are necessary in the general society. HOWEVER, in the limited case of sport, I see a different analysis. Sports always has an element of competitve fairness or sports(man)ship; I see no reason why these events cannot define for themselves who may compete in the "female" category, in order to maintain the competitive and fair system. (OK - I recognize that the same argument could be used on other equal protection grounds - unsuccessfully in my view - but the gender issue is distinct here). Because if not, the nature of the competition in the female category changes. For that reason alone, the binary system may be appropriate. Of course, the same argument does nto apply in general society, I beleive, where a greater spectrum of choice categories should be (and to a large extent, are) appropriate.

Posted by: anon | Aug 24, 2009 8:49:35 AM

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