Woman, Man, Neither? The Predicament of a World-Class Runner

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Ms. Reis is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (2009). She is an associate professor of women's and gender studies and history at the University of Oregon in Eugene and a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner who won the women's 800-meter race at the World Track Championships in Berlin last month, has been unofficially declared intersexed. If she is, it means that she was born with some discrepancy between her external genitals, internal sex anatomy (ovaries or testes and her hormones and chromosomes.

The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) will not make its official ruling as to whether it considers Semenya a woman until November, but an increasing number of news outlets around the world have reported that she's "a hermaphrodite." What does this mean, exactly?

The media's terminology itself reflects the ignorance and confusion surrounding intersex. Doctors and lay people no longer use the word hermaphrodite because it is vague, demeaning and sensationalistic. "Hermaphrodite" continues to conjure images of mythical creatures, perhaps even monsters and freaks. It's thus not surprising that most have rejected the label.

Historically, hermaphrodite has been one of the more neutral descriptors of those born with atypical sex development. Derogatory terms such as "freak of nature," "hybrid," "impostor," "sexual pervert," and "unfortunate creature" pervade early American medical literature. In one standard 19th-century text on malformations, one doctor referred to "these mortifying and disgusting imperfections."

Intersex bodies have always aroused suspicion. But many people's distrust of them has not been limited to the playing fields, nor is it new. Throughout American history, doctors and lay people in authority have assumed that those born with atypical bodies were dishonest and fraudulent (say, in illegally voting when the franchise was limited to men), or were seeking illegal sexual relations. These authorities persistently tried to define ambiguous bodies as either male or female.

Yet over the years doctors' evaluations of intersex bodies have shifted. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, a person with a female-appearing body would have been counseled to undergo surgery in order to appear more like a man because of her internal testes, particularly if doctors discovered that she was sexually attracted to women. In the 1940s, doctors turned to the new field of psychology to guide their decisions and determined that it was more sensible to let such an individual continue living as a woman, if she so chose.

These "medical" decisions were informed by social anxieties and therapeutic trends, not scientific findings. From the 1950s onward, doctors have tried to intervene surgically at infancy, before patients had a chance to develop an identity as female or male. Doctors would decide an intersex baby's gender primarily by how well they thought the external genitals could be surgically reshaped to appear "normal."

The thinking was that there was a window of opportunity in which a baby's gender could go either way. All it took was the parents' unwavering commitment toward raising either a boy or a girl, and this could only happen, doctors believed, if the baby's genitals looked distinctly male or female. Nurture, they believed, trumped nature, particularly when nature seemed confused.

In each era, attitudes toward intersex bodies have expressed the social norms of their time and place. Today, the response to Caster Semenya highlights the pervasive yet misguided insistence that the sexes are unambiguously distinct and easily distinguishable. As some declare Semenya too manly to compete, for example, a popular South African magazine features a glamorously feminine Semenya on its cover, as if she were Oprah. Real life is more complicated.

If Semenya has female external anatomy but male internal anatomy, as the recent reports suggest, is she a woman or a man? Medical authorities have pondered such cases for years, and only one thing seems clear: interpretation of these findings is as much (or even more) social than scientific.

Today authorities (like the IAAF) have spent much time trying to determine intersexed people's "true sex." Their efforts have been invasive and sometimes degrading and embarrassing to women like Caster Semenya.

And what's the point? Our two-gendered world forces all people to be classified as male or female even when the boundaries are more blurred than we imagine. We simply do not have a social category for intersex people, despite the fact that intersex occurs in one out of every 2000 births.

We necessarily make social decisions about whether to raise an intersex baby as a boy or a girl. Once these decisions have been made, we should honor a family's judgment. Caster Semenya was raised as a girl, considers herself a woman, and is regarded as a woman by her community. Yet now she has had to submit to a humiliating public inspection and deal with new knowledge about her body that casts doubt upon her identity as well as her integrity.

Intersex people have endured such scrutiny for years because their bodies posed a threat to our assumption that the male and female are completely distinct categories. Perhaps Semenya's test results with her public defense will challenge this notion.

In recent years, the medical world has made strides in letting intersex bodies stay as they are by holding off on infant surgeries and by letting people decide for themselves about their own bodies when they are adults. This autonomy is a good thing; it gives credit to the person himself or herself. Let's give Semenya some credit too and congratulate her on a good race.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Arnold Shcherban - 9/28/2009

You can label me as you, please, but
if sex (or intersex) should not be used as a distigiushing characteristic between genders, then what do you propose? Unite men and women and intersexed sports competitions and call them "human" competiions... Don't be ridiculous, folks. Ignorance, prejudice, and segregation have nothing to do with legitimate, scientifically confirmed physiological differences between men or women or, for that matter, intersexed folks that account for different achievements in sports and some other spheres of human activity. And therefore, there have to be sexual criteria involved.

Zoe Ellen Brain - 9/22/2009

Most Intersexed people self-identify within the gender binary model. That is, they see themselves as either male, or female. Men with congenital anomalies, or women with congenital anomalies.

Most - not all. Perhaps one in ten see themselves as just not fitting either of those two choices.

Whether Society should respect that self-identification or not is a separate issue.

In practice, in the main, such respect is lacking. Those Intersexed people identifying as men are accused being "not *real* men at all", while those who don't see themselves as fitting the binary model are accused of being freaks and perverts, men or women who are sexually deviant with perverse desires. Sometimes the same person can be accused of "really being a perverted man" and "really being a perverted woman" at the same time, by different people. Only the hate stays constant.

For those who are Intersexed, a sense of humour, and strong sense of the ridiculous are essential survival skills.

The assumption by bureaucracies that Intersexed people are deceptive and fraudulent is unfortunately not just historical fact: it's not universally the case, but all too often it is current reality too, in my experience.

I'm Intersexed, and the above is based on my personal observations, and communicating with others in various online support groups. I don't wish to make the situation appear worse than it is, in general it's not that bad, but we genuinely do face legal issues most would find impossible to credit.

Per Fagereng - 9/21/2009

What next? A special intersex Olympics?

Does anyone remember Babe Didriksen? She was a manly-looking woman from Texas and a star in several sports. I don't recall that she was ever asked to take tests. She eventually married a wrestler named George Zaharias.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/21/2009

This case reminds me of the other controversial South African runner, Oscar Pistorius. Mr. Pistorius is a childhood double amputee (below the knees), and grew up on artificial legs. He runs, and he has special running legs, the way other people have special running shoes. His times, thus equipped, are approximately in the Olympic Gold Medal range. On the other hand, if he were considered as a kind of bicyclist, his performance would be broadly in the local amateur club range. That is, he is not at the Tour De France level (2200 miles in 21 days at about 35 mph). There is ongoing dispute about how to classify him.