Runner Sheds Light on the Ambiguity of Gender

September 16, 2009
Bradley Schmidt

Doubts surrounding women's world 800-meter champion Caster Semenya's gender have opened up a very public debate over endocrine disorders and what makes a "real" man or woman.

After emerging from complete obscurity to become World Champion in less than a month, doubts were quick to follow South African 800-meter-runner Caster Semenya. Typically in Track and Field circles, concerns over such a meteoric rise would surround performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids or erythropoietin.

However, for Semenya’s doubters, her deep voice and muscular build begged another question: Is she a woman?

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Semenya has internal testes, no uterus or ovaries, and three times the testosterone of an average woman. And yet, through a short history highlighting track and field’s tenuous relationship with gender issues—from outright masquerading males to inconclusive testing and ruined lives—one can readily determine that the answer, like gender, lies decidedly outside of the realm of black and white.

Writing in a New York Times essay, Alice Dreger, Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, poses the following scenarios:

Women with complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome are less “masculinized” in their muscles and brains than the average woman, because the average woman makes and “hears” some androgens. Want to tell women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome they have to compete as men, just because they have a Y chromosome? That makes no sense.So, some say, just look at genitals. Forget the genes — pull down the jeans! The I.A.A.F. asks drug testers to do this. But because male and female genitals start from the same stuff, a person can have something between a penis and a clitoris, and still legitimately be thought of as a man or a woman.Moreover, a person can look male-typical on the outside but be female-typical on the inside, or vice versa. A few years ago, I got a call from Matthew, a 19-year-old who was born looking obviously male, was raised a boy, and had a girlfriend and a male-typical life. Then he found out, by way of some medical problems, that he had ovaries and a uterus.Matthew had an extreme form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. His adrenal glands made so many androgens, even though he had XX chromosomes and ovaries that his body developed to look male-typical. In fact, his body is mostly male-typical, including his muscle development and his self identity.

Interestingly enough, the genetic tests which the IAAF (track and field’s world governing body) ordered Semenya to undergo, were dropped by the International Olympic Committee after the 1996 Atlanta Games when eight females failed tests, but were later reinstated on appeal.

The IAAF and other governing bodies should work to create standardized, scientifically-reviewed methods for gender-testing in order to preserve not only fair competition, but the personal privacy and psychological well-being of their athletes. In the end, Semenya is an 18-year-old woman with an endocrine disorder and should not have to suffer an international debate over who or what she is, when she made that decision long ago.