Alex Blaze

Caster Semenya is a woman, now what?

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 12, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Caster Semenya, hermaphrodite, intersex, south africa, sports, track and field, transgender, women in sports, Zoe Brain

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to Caster, but I'll preface this by saying that finding out that there are some people who are unwilling to accept her gender (using that term intentionally) at face value, online commenters from all over the world calling her a "freak" and worse, and losing the one thing that she worked so much for and in which she was very talented, all at age 18, has to be hard on her.

The IAAF, the governing body behind international track and field events, hasn't released the official results of Caster Semenya's gender tests, and are requesting that she get some more done (according to the Telegraph yesterday). But a source leaked the results to the same paper the day before, and apparently she has a body that doesn't fit neatly into the binary.

Media coverage has been mixed. For example, while the Telegraph used the inappropriate word "hermaphrodite" to describe her in their original report, they added the word "inter-sex" alongside "hermaphrodite" in their update. They also didn't say that her described condition is "deadly" again. Baby steps.

The traditional media coverage of Caster's body and genitalia has generally avoided making any distinction between "gender" and "sex," completely ignoring the fact that no matter what her reproductive organs look like, most likely she identifies as a woman. That's not a trifle, that's not a delusion, that's not a sidenote; it's the way she's wired and there's nothing a doctor, the IAAF, prayer, or ignorant people with an opinion about her body can do to change that.

That's where this discussion starts: Caster is a woman if she identifies and lives her life as a woman. The question is whether her body gives her an unfair advantage in women's athletics, not what her gender is.

The IAAF is trying to figure out what to do, and the Telegraph is reporting that they might ban her for her unfair advantage. They want to talk to her but apparently she's generally unavailable for comment:

However, the world governing body's frustration was obvious in comments from its media director Nick Davies, who said: "ASA's actions can have serious consequences for Semenya if we are not able to speak to her soon.

"In short, it will come down to her refusing to co-operate. Had it been a drugs issue, she would have been suspended a long time ago, but this is a unique problem for which the IAAF's rules do not make provision. It is important for us to talk to her about the results of the tests.''

Pam has a round-up of some of the stranger comments people are leaving around the internet about Caster (warning: don't follow the link unless you're prepared for your brain to hurt). Some people are insisting that Caster is a "man," without knowing her, assuming that if she has testicles and no uterus, then she's close enough (apparently, sex and gender are like horseshoes).

And the IAAF is worried about the unfair advantage she has in these competitions. I wouldn't go so far, since everyone involved in that level of track competition has an unfair advantage of some sort. I'll say right now, no matter how hard I train for the 800 meter, I'll never go to the Olympics. Genetics just didn't give me a body to do that with, and it has nothing to do with gender. I'm perfectly fine with that knowledge, but someone who trains extensively in high school and college athletics who wants to go pro but just never gets an 800-meter time low enough to compete might think life is unfair, even if it's controlled for sex.

Those folks who do compete on that level have other "unfair advantages," longer legs, a stronger heart, better balance, lots of different features that people have no control over give them the edge necessary to win at these sports. A man who's 5'4" is going to have a bit more trouble playing pro football than a man who's 6'4". Does that mean that the taller man has an "unfair advantage"? Should he be disqualified so the shorter man can have a chance?

Why is it that the only unfair advantages (that people are born with) we're concerned about have to do with sex, when people don't choose their genome and it's filled with unfair advantages and disadvantages that have nothing to do with the X or Y chromosomes or how the genes on them are expressed? Humans have 44 non-sex chromosomes and 2 sex chromosomes, and the only reason we care so much more about those 2 is because of political and cultural reasons. And any decision the IAAF makes will be about those cultural and political reasons more than any objective form of "fairness."

On the other hand, women's athletics exist for a reason. While Caster set the fastest time in the women's 800 meters this year with 1:55, men at the Olympics last year were running the same distance in the 1:40's. In a race that comes down to the hundredth of a second, that difference is big enough to require that something be done to allow women to compete and win regularly.

Men generally have more testosterone than women, and testosterone is literally a performance-enhancing substance (remember how Floyd Landis got disqualified from the Tour de France in 2006 because he tested positive for testosterone doping?). If we do consider women competing in athletics important, women's sports will have to continue, and there will have to continue to be a definition for "woman."

The issue that the IAAF has to address is whether she has an unfair advantage over other female athletes. While the Telegraph described her as having a "deadly" condition (no time like the present for a little scare-mongering, huh?), she's lived like that for 18 years and hasn't had problems yet. At the very least, it doesn't sound like an emergency.

Here are the IAAF's regulations when it comes to intersex people:

2. In resolving cases that may arise, determination should not be done solely on laboratory based sex determination; [...]

6. Conditions that should be allowed:

(a) Those conditions that accord no advantage over other females:
- Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete -
previously called testicular feminization);
- Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoid
- Turner's syndrome.

(b) Those conditions that may accord some advantages but nevertheless
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia;
- Androgen producing tumors;
- Anovulatory androgen excess (polycystic ovary syndrome).

The formidable Zoe Brain has more on Caster's situation:

If the reports are correct, Ms Semanya has PAIS-6. Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome grade 6, where grade 7 is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS).[...]

Unlike other women, she cannot get the full performance benefits of testosterone, since she's almost immune to the stuff. Having three times the female average could well be less effective when it comes to building muscle mass than a normal amount in an average women. Many female athletes have high natural levels of testosterone anyway - though still a third or less of an average male, and a tenth of a male athlete.

As regards the "dangerous condition" of internal testes, the danger isn't exactly immediate. There's a tenfold normal risk of cancer, and it would be wise to have 6-monthly checks, and gonadectomy if any pre-cancerous lesions are found, but that's it. At worst, 1 in 50, and the estrogen, the female sex hormone also produced by the testes, is useful for preventing oteopyrosis and other conditions, so it's swings and roundabouts. The real reason for gonadectomy is to stop other people from being upset about the idea of a woman with testes in her body.


To be clear, the response to internal testicles isn't always to remove them. I know a woman who, when she was born, was put through surgery to have them put on the outside. She transitioned later in life - the folks who operated on her body to make her fit their idea of what a man should look like guessed incorrectly.


Who knows how Caster actually identifies, considering the incredible financial and political pressure on her now? Or how she will identify, or realize that she identifies, a few years from now? She is 18, and many people who are told they're one gender all their lives don't realize that they're different before age 18. Any rush to surgery seems completely unnecessary, and would take her out of competition for at least two years according to IAAF rules anyway.

It's up the IAAF to decide what happens now, and this is a complicated situation that doesn't have an easy answer that won't hurt someone in the end. I'll wait until the full, official results come out, but if Zoe's right, it sounds like Caster should be able to continue to compete.

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Zoe is the one to know for these issues. She's a real brain.

As an IS person, the whole gender and sexuality thing is...well, difficult for me.

If Caster 'thinks' of herself as a woman, she's a woman. If she changes her mind later and thinks of himself as a man, then he's a man. If Caster thinks of Caster as 'Caster' and a unique individual that's cool too. Caster is a very speical and unique person.

As for should she compete with other women on an athletic field? Why don't cha go with the original rules. All players naked. That way we can make sure everyone on the playing field measures up.

You know, she might identify as a woman because she was told she is a woman, and didn't realize there was any other possibility.

It takes a lot of guts and certitude to believe something that goes against all obvious evidence. If you don't know it's even possible to have a different gender identity than your birth sex, it's even harder.

Even people who have perfectly normal biology for their birth sex can have a different gender identity. So there is no reason to assume what her's is.

It will undoubtedly take some time for her to process this information, and she shouldn't make any major life decisions until well after that process.

You know, she might identify as a woman because she was told she is a woman, and didn't realize there was any other possibility.

I thought the same thing, Rory.

Bil, I didn't figure it out until I was 40, and I was smack-dab right in the middle of the GLBT community. I'm guessing she didn't have the same exposure that I had.

I just worry about her. She is a teenager who has been thrown for a serious loop and the rollercoaster isn't stopping any time soon. The fact that this info was leaked and she has no privacy in this is reprahensable. The challenges which sparked the tests and controversy should never have been publicized and this whole thing should have been conducted with taste and quietly.
How would any of us do? Chances are that she has never thought about any of the myriad questions that she is facing right now. I hope like hell that she has some strong personal support.


This poor girl has had some of the most impactful news you can ever get, and got it through the media and public eye rather than in private with time to come to terms with it as she should have been.

I accept that being a professional athlete means you have less of a privacy right than others, though I dislike that fact. But this has been outrageous and downright cruel. The comments by the public, especially, have been full of ignorance, hate, and bile that noone shoud have to have directed at them. Let alone for a condition they themselves are only just learning about.

This is a huge impact on her life. If she thinks of herself as a woman, there is a good chance she had planned womanly things for her life, like having children. On top of the impact to her career, this poor girl has just found out she can never have children of her own.

It's no wonder she can't be reached for comment. I think patience needs to be shown here by everyone involved. Let this girl have some time to figure out what this all means, and come to terms with the massive impact on her life.

She was born with in a state of "intersex" with respect how people usually view such things. Turning this into a gender issue is inappropriate. Maybe people should ask other intersex people about it.

Remember the "if" in the "if the reports are correct".

She may have a lesser degree of androgen insensitivity - PAIS-5. Or she may have 5alpha-reductase-2 deficiency (5alpha-RD-2) or 17beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-3 deficiency (17beta-HSD-3) which can have similar effects. The latter two cause bodily masculinisation at puberty - sometimes close to complete masculinisation.

I don't know, based on the conflicting evidence that's been reported. Some of these conditions take extensive testing to sort out from each other, and others, like the degree of PAIS, are somewhat matters for judgment, there's no bright line between them. The principles are the same though.

What I do know is that there is an 18 year old girl, a teenager, who's given her life to sport, and is now being persecuted for a condition she was born with, and didn't even know about.

Her right to privacy has been violated in the extreme. This amounts to rape by media. I don't like using the word "rape" except in the context of actual physical sexual assault, it devalues the word, but in this case, it fits. It may not be physical, but it's a very public sexual assault.

She's not primarily an Intersexed person, or even a girl. She's a young, vulnerable HUMAN BEING. I can gasbag on about philosophical definitions of sex, cellular receptors and neuroanatomy, but she's not a scrap of tissue, not an experimental subject, she's human, a person, young, inexperienced, poverty-stricken, un-privileged in every way.

As a person, she innately has the right to my respect, my compassion, to my empathy as a fellow human being. But it goes beyond that. Her behaviour and dignity in the face of such adversity has earned my extreme respect for her unusual courage.

Please, can we not forget that? Could you have coped with anything like this at age 18?

One more thing in passing: OK, I'm an expert, hobnobbing with the likes of Diamond, Ecker, Drantz and Italiano. But you don't have to know very much to be an expert here. It scares me a little that I know so little, yet am considered such an authority. Now it's not unusual for someone to be given respect they don't deserve, that happens all the time. What really terrifies me is that that appelation actually is deserved, I really am an expert despite knowing so little. And that people's lives depend on such a rickety state of knowledge here.

From Sidney, a specialist in the field, who agrees with my assessment.

Hi Zoe, After reading the Daily Telegraph of London, I read some of the 299 comments and per usual everybody has an opinion about something they know nothing about. All speculative! As a Urologist, who lectures on this very subject to medical doctors, let me tell you what I think I know from reading the AP from Pretoria, SA. Caster Semenya has a probable genetic Disorder of Sexual Development known as Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, probably Grade 5 or 6, where the external genitalia are female-like and the internal genitalia are vestigial testes, which produce Testosterone and Estrogen. I say probable because we cannot know if she has any ovarian tissue mixed with the testis tissue until these vestigial organs are examined under the microscope by a pathologist. This will probably never happen, unless it is presented to her as a condition for receiving female hormones. At this moment everyone is assuming she is an XY woman. Now somebody said she had three times the normal female Testosterone level, which according to this one lab gives her less than their normal male values. Now every lab has its own normal values and we have not seen any numbers. So here are the values from just one lab, not her testing lab.
Determination Normal Reference Value
Testosterone: Conventional units SI units
Female 6–86 ng/dl 0.21–3 nmol/L
Male 270–1070 ng/dl 9.3–37 nmol/L
But it doesn't matter what her serum Total or Free Testosterone is because the definition of PAIS implies that the cells which receive T cannot utilize it because their Androgen Receptors will not bind the T effectively. That's why she has female external genitalia at birth. Interestingly the research in this area is so complete that the Chromosomal mutation on the Androgen Receptor can be identified. Usually these women and I say women, because that is how they have been raised and gender identify as female, are diagnosed in their teens because they cannot menstruate or conceive. Now in truth I know no more about her physical condition than what I read in the newspapers. Is the London Daily Telegraph a tabloid or the cousin to the New York Daily News? Poor Girl !!!!



Please, enough.

Even the strongest materiel has a breaking point.

Lawmaker Butana Komphela, chair of South Africa's sports committee, was quoted as saying: "She is like a raped person. She is afraid of herself and does not want anyone near her. If she commits suicide, it will be on all our heads. The best we can do is protect her and look out for her during this trying time."

World fastest female runner can't run fast enough from gender political BS.

Proof enough that she is woman.