Earlier this month, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that they will be verifying the gender of South African runner Caster Semenya, who won the women's 800-meter event at the Berlin Games.
The incident raises a host of issues: the incompatibility between conventional femininity and athletic prowess, the pressure on women athletes to be heterosexually attractive, the racism of dominant western culture and its beauty standards, the presumption of male athletic superiority and the question of gender segregation in sport, the invasion of Semenya's privacy by leaking the news of testing before the results are in.
But the point I want to concentrate on today is that the binary structuring of gender in our society is a social, not a biological fact. As Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna noted many years ago, if we consider a list of items that differentiate females from males, "there are none that always and without exception are true of only one gender." Or as Alice Dreger pointed out more recently in the New York Times, the panel of doctors charged with verifying Semenya's gender "are not going to be able to run a test that will answer the question. Science can and will inform their decision, but they are going to have to decide which of the dozens of characteristics of sex matter to them. Their decision will be like the consensus regarding how many points are awarded for a touchdown [or] a field goal — it will be a sporting decision, not a natural one, about how we choose to play the game of sex."
Let's consider a short history of sex testing in sport. In ancient Greece, the Olympic games were closed to women athletes, and the ban was enforced by the simple expedient of having the athletes compete unclothed. In the twentieth century, the initial strategy for gender verification was pretty much the same as that used by the Greeks—visual inspection of genitals. Judging from online comments, many people still believe this is an appropriate test. But doubts were raised about the reliability of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s use of that method, perhaps because of the increased availability of surgical and hormonal procedures to reshape bodies, or perhaps because of increasing awareness that not all societies surgically alter the genitals of newborns to make them less ambiguous.
In the US, about 1 in 2000 births—about 5 per day— according to the Intersex Initiative, require specialists to assign a child’s sex. Once that assignment is made, the practice for many years has been for immediate cosmetic surgery on the infant to produce genitals that the parents can feel comfortable with. That means that any child born with a clitoris longer than one centimeter is likely to have it cut down to a size considered to look more feminine.
In 2006 the journal Pediatrics published a consensus statement signed by 50 international experts on the treatment of intersex conditions, also known as disorders of sexual development, or DSDs. The Consensus, responding to activism as well as to the lack of medical research showing positive outcomes of this genital surgery on infants, instructs doctors to discourage families from rushing into surgery, but the statement's vagueness allows for these practices to continue.
You can hear more about intersex issues on the May 2009 episode of Gender Blender, archived on the KBOO website.
Anyway, by the early seventies, a genital check was no longer felt to be a reliable test for gender. So the IAAF and the IOC switched to a test done for chromosomes.
It's worth noting here that even though the criteria for determining gender membership shifted—from genitals to genes—the notion that there was a bright line somehow persisted.
But chromosome testing, too, though also still apparently a point of faith for many, is not a reliable boundary marker. Not everyone is XX or XY—some people are XO, or XXX, or XXY, or XYY. People may have a mosaic of chromosomes, because of mutations during development, or may have two sets of chromosomes, in what's known as chimerism, when two fertilized eggs merge to form a single individual. Further, as Dreger points out in the Times, although the gene called SRY usually appears on the Y chromosome and makes the fetus develop as male, it can also turn up on an X chromosome, or not work on a Y chromosome, so that there may develop XX males and XY females. Given these uncertainties, the IAAF and IOC both abandoned these tests in the 1990s.
Chromosome testing was problematic not only for those born with many of the intersex conditions or DSDs, but also for transgender athletes. Current IOC and IAAF policy allows participation of transsexual athletes who have had surgery and hormone therapy as long as the transition occurred either before puberty or at least two years before the competition in question. Also allowed to compete as women are those found to have a select list of intersex conditions or other DSDs. Policies on other medicalizations of human diversity are unclear. But the ruling on transsexual athletes suggests that the new gender boundary is being sought in hormones, even though, again, no hormone is unique to one gender.
Kai Wright, in an essay on The Root, observes that, whatever decision the IAAF panel comes to about Semenya's gender, her "humanity has already been sacrificed to Western culture’s desperate, frightened effort to maintain the fiction of binary, fixed gender. . . . We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re [human constructs], and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place."
Those constructs are, like competitive sport itself, also deeply enmeshed with capitalist marketing. As transsexual lesbian playwright Kate Bornstein observes in her play Hidden: A Gender, "Once you buy gender, you'll buy anything to keep it."
I urge you not to buy.
update, more recently: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-olympics-are-still-struggling-to-define-gender/