Intersexuality means that gender, like race, is neither black nor white

Caster Semenya, a great athlete“I keep telling you guys my aim is to become a legend,” said Usain Bolt, after smashing the world 200 metres record and becoming the first man to hold the 100 and 200 metres sprints in both the Olympics and the Athletics World Championships.

Competition at international sporting events is fierce and the pursuit of an edge, sometimes measured in hundredths of a second, leads some to cheat.  Steroid abuse aims to increase the strength, speed and endurance of what is natural.  But the androgens created by the body are not set to any standard.  Some people do genuinely produce more than others.  Figuring out what is normal and what is not is difficult.

And, sometimes, something else is going on.

In 1966, Erika Schinegger was the world champion women’s downhill skier.  The young Austrian was preparing for the Olympics in 1968 and a hoped-for gold medal.  However, 1968 was no ordinary year.

The politics of the time saw Communist countries forcing significant anabolic steroids on their athletes in an effort to ensure victory.  The concern was not just for the future of competitive sport, but also for the health of the athletes.  The East Germans, in particular, were serial abusers.  Manfred Ewald, architect of their doping scheme, was convicted and jailed in 2000 for his part in this.

Besides doping, though, many male athletes were entered as women to ensure an additional level of success.

Schinegger was one of the first Olympic athletes to undergo a gender test.  She discovered, to her shock, that she was actually male.  She was disqualified and had a sex-change, becoming Erik, a man.

Gender is not as simple as visually inspecting a person and deciding whether they are male or female.  Much of what we are comes down to the expression of our genes.

For hardened racists, it can be somewhat troubling and disconcerting to discover that we are both all and no races.  That a person who may live in Europe and whose family has been there for generations has components of their genetic code that prove incontrovertibly that they have African ancestors.

This doesn’t matter unless you enter a situation where hard rules are enforced, like South Africa’s racial rules of the Apartheid era.  The same is also true of gender.  It doesn’t much matter unless you wish to have children, or to compete in sporting events.

During the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm, the female egg has its X chromosome complemented by either of an X or Y chromosome from the sperm.  This results in a typical XX or XY paring.  However, in one pairing per thousand, something slightly different happens.

According to the Textbook of Sexual Medicine, “During the first weeks of development, genetic male and female fetuses are anatomically indistinguishable, with primitive gonads beginning to develop during approximately the sixth week of gestation. The gonads, in a bipotential state, may develop into either testes (the male gonads) or ovaries (the female gonads) depending on consequent events.”

The most common cause of sexual ambiguity is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of virilizing hormones.  This results in genetic females (XX chromosomes) producing male characteristics as they become extremely sensitive to male hormones.  Conversely, a genetic male (XY) could become insensitive to androgens, resulting in female characteristics.  And there are a wide range of other variations.

Milton Diamond, a prominent gender researcher, says this, “Foremost, we advocate use of the terms “typical,” “usual,” or “most frequent” where it is more common to use the term “normal.” When possible avoid expressions like maldeveloped or undeveloped, errors of development, defective genitals, abnormal, or mistakes of nature. Emphasize that all of these conditions are biologically understandable while they are statistically uncommon.”

In other words, while some of the impacts of these gender events can be disturbing for some, and statistically rare, they are all normal aspects of our genetic makeup.  Far from making race and gender simpler, modern genetics has made pure categorisation almost impossible.

All of this may be scant support for Caster Semenya as she undergoes the public scrutiny which has followed her victory in the 800 metres at the World Championships.

In every-day life, it certainly doesn’t matter what gender she may be. 

In the brutal world of competitive athletics, it is important.  This has nothing to do with the politics of gender or race, but it does with the arbitrary limitations required of competitive sport. 

Life is full of arbitrary definitions: from the legal voting age, to official retirement, to age categories for sporting events. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is enforcing its rules no less arbitrarily, but those happen to be the known rules for international competition.

The debate about racism or sexism is pitched as being about accepting predefined stereotypes and labels, not about chucking them in the bin.  Race is an arbitrary measure of human difference.  So is gender.  Yet we don’t throw away the labels, we just force people into them and then demand tolerance of people because of those labels.  Isn’t that discrimination as well?

The real hope of this current row over the gender of one person is that maybe we can start accepting people for what they are, rather than in stereotyping people and then choosing whether to accept or reject those stereotypes.

[Cross-posted from]

Further reading

10 replies »

  1. One of the aspects of this that really disturbs me is the notion that Caster has the potential to “fail” this testing. She may in fact just express XX in a certain way, but would you like to be told you fail at your gender assignment?

  2. I’m not really sure what people are supposed to do about this short of dropping sex from competition all together or creating another category called “other.” Neither one is a very satisfying (or realistic) answer.

  3. Dawn, the “failure” is to fit the arbitrary categorisations necessary for ultra-athletic competition. This is an artificial test for an artificial measure of physical excellence. It is certainly possible to “fail” it; but that doesn’t have any bearing on the world outside the world of competitive sport.

    The real problem is the way the South African government – like the Soviets before them – have chosen to politicise the life of one person and, in so doing, make that person’s life a misery.

    Ubertramp: I agree, it doesn’t feel very satisfying, but then have a look at the “special” Olympics and the largely bizarre and arbitrary categorisations that take place there. It can be done, it just takes a little imagination.

    And remember, there are some 6 million transsexuals in the world…

  4. Whyhawk – I understand your point that the “failure” is against a set of rules designed to govern a series of competitions. If the discussion was left inside that arena I might agree with you, but it spills over to the public. Sadly many female athletes that have had their sexual identity questioned have had all manner of humiliations heaped on them. I’m sorry I can’t find the article this morning, but will link it later – the humilation has ranged from being displayed naked in public to feeling such loss as to commit suicide.
    Humans are emotional beings and I’m not convinced that the label “fail” does not have bigger implications than this sporting event.

  5. Dawn, we’re not disagreeing at all. I am far more concerned than I can find the words for. I would like that this “failure” be seen only in the context of this sporting categorisation. I am well aware that it will be used far more widely to humiliate and ruin Semenya.

    She comes from an incredibly rural and ignorant part of South Africa. These rural areas still stone “witches” to death. Introducing a topic as complex as interssexuality in the context of this debate would be difficult enough. Politicising it, as the South African government is doing, almost ensures that Semenya will be cast out of her family and her village should she be found to be interssexual.

    Instead of patiently waiting for the results and declaring that, irrispective of gender, Semenya is still a great athlete, the government has announced that the test is racist, sexist and regard it as a slight against the nation.

    To answer Dr S, there is no discussion whatsoever in South Africa about the nature of gender and interssexuallity. I don’t think anyone is prepared for how Semenya will be treated should the results come back inconclusive.

  6. Whyhawk – I confess I have very limited knowledge regarding these sort of sporting organizations – but how did she get this far in competition without this question being posed? Would this be a kinder process to have everyone checked before they begin competition at this level? Then when an athlete posts such a performance there is no controversy. It’s cruel the way it is now.

    Thank you for sharing this story – it needs exploration.

  7. A year ago Semenya was a racing non-entity. Then her fastest times dropped by 25 seconds and she popped onto the international racing circuit radar. The IAAF immediately requested a test from Sport SA, but were refused (South Africa puts precious little resource into athletics, but enjoys the political kudos of winning and didn’t want their new “star” disqualified).

    When Sport SA announced Semenya as a competitor in their team for the World Championships then the IAAF put their foot down and demanded a test, which was done, but the results hadn’t come out by the time of the competition. Sport SA, worried that she would be disqualified before the awards were handed out, leaked the story to the press.

    I.e. the IAAF was attempting to handle it sensitively, but they’re dealing with a munchkin country. It is appalling the way this is being handled, but I’m not sure – now that the story is out – what should be done to ameliorate the damage.

  8. Having noticed the phenomenon in tropical fish in High School I made a small research project of it in College and an obvious bit of Darwinism came forth. If it works it will be passed on no matter what general rules and division bins folk made to recognize two bins that were different some will not fit in either bin, and while full species examples of ” not your normal ideas of sex” are common they could not get that way without ready made examples of individuals of all sorts stepping off in that direction.

    In the literature I could find at the time were two examples of men who had children as men undergoing a change and having children as women (this is counter to expectations and there was not much in explanation) In one case it got dicey as the man was Muslim and with three wives and it caused a bit of stir legally till all 4 were declared a harem that had lost its man. I read this 40 years ago and the details are sketchy. However the progress from female to male is standard issue in grouper, and many species, and all(?) birds are referred to as YY & WY as the female of the species carries the odd gene.

    There is also a rather famous race of lizards that have no males at all as the first splitting creates a clone instead of an egg. As I said it was 40 years ago and primarily a literature search, though I was able to get a single fish that changed, going from female to nothing to male, according to my professor who was able to distinguish what he was looking at far better than I could.

    But what was obvious is that what happens is never cut and dried just because someone put a label on it and the pigeon holes you put things in reflect how your mind orders them and not what is happening.