After her impressive victory in the 800m at the World Championships last week, crushing the competition by a good two seconds, South African teenager Caster Semenya was rewarded with a gold medal – and an investigation into whether or not she is female.
This is, of course, not unheard of. Ever since people found out that Stella Walsh, the 100m Olympic champion in 1932, had ambiguous genitalia, sporting boards have kept an eye out for this sort of thing.
Very rarely does a man pose as a woman athlete. Much more common are abnormalities in the determination of one’s sex, either because of chromosomal disorders, overproduction of androgens, non-responsiveness to certain hormones, or other conditions which result in some degree of intersex identity. Very occasionally a woman will find out, often in the midst of fertility testing, that she in fact has an XY combination. I recommend Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s My Brother’s Keeper for a good summary of just how many things have to be working normally in order for the XY chromosome pair to result in clearly expressed male physiology.
But that’s not what interests me about this case. It’s more the reaction of the South African athletic federation, Leonard Chuene. He was furious that the sex-testing procedure had been made public, and rightly so. That’s a pretty big breach of confidentiality in the sporting world. But Chuene was also indignant about the test being run at all, saying that there was no basis for it – then going so far as to claim that racism was behind the inquiry: “It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe,” Chuene told The Associated Press by telephone. “If it [sic] was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child.” At a news conference he spewed the same accusation: “We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”
Think about how fascinating this is. Chuene is defending his own masculine pride through nationalist posturing – over the issue of an athlete who looks insufficiently feminine. Is he trying to appear more assertive and masculine than Semenya? And why does he feel so obligated to defend her at all costs? Is this also a tactic to “feminize” her, by playing to her youth, making her appear helpless and unable to speak for herself?
Moreover, Chuene describes sex as a matter of a society’s authority to “describe and define.” This is a considerable claim. Scholarship in the twentieth century, from Margaret Mead to Julia Kristeva, explained how gender is a matter of social construction. Only recently have intersex peoples (formerly called hermaphrodites) contended for the non-objectivity and pliability of sex itself. Calling into question the basic binary between male and female pulls the carpet out pretty much from under every society. Which is strange that it’s being declared from the mouth of Chuene, who strikes me as – oddly enough – patriarchal and paternalistic.
For the record, I’m not willing to concede the category of sex simply because of the possibility of biological variance. Neither will the World Championships athletic committee either, I’m sure.