Commentary | Let Caster Semenya choose how to live

Since I wrote about Caster Semenya (“Transcending sex and gender binaries,” Commentary, August 31), the South African runner and gold medallist forced to undergo sex determination testing by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), there have been a number of troubling developments in the case.

Last Thursday, the Australian press published rumours about Semenya’s test results, stating that Semenya is a “hermaphrodite.” The Canadian, American, and British press have parroted this story. However, the IAAF has not actually released its findings on Semenya, so we don’t know what the official results are. This coverage has wronged Semenya in two ways.

First, the press has used the word “hermaphrodite,” which is at best inaccurate and outdated, and at worst an otherizing and sensationalizing term.

A hermaphrodite, technically, is someone who has both male and female genitalia. The reports contradict this by stating that Semenya has undescended testes and XY chromosomes, characteristics which indicate that Semenya probably has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), a condition that prevents a person with XY chromosomes from developing along typically “male” lines because the body fails to respond to testosterone. Instead, people with AIS share the physical characteristics of XX females, except for ovaries and a uterus.

Second, the media has violated Semenya’s privacy, while – ironically – protecting the privacy of whomever started the test-result rumours. All this may have already caused Semenya intense emotional harm – just look at the abruptness with which Semenya dropped out of a race last Saturday, just after the news broke, or how Semenya is reportedly under suicide watch.

The question is this: What happens to Caster Semenya, now that this story, regardless of its truthfulness, is out in the public sphere?

Semenya should certainly keep the gold medal. Imagine your medical history, especially regarding a socially stigmatized condition related to your sex, discussed openly in the international press. How would you feel? Then add to that the pain of losing a gold medal and having a race that came approximately two seconds away from the women’s world record invalidated. How would you feel then?

I contend, then, that the IAAF’s and the media’s violation of Semenya’s privacy alone morally justifies letting Semenya keep the medal.

In any case, if Semenya has AIS, she would not be a “hermaphrodite” and she would not be disqualified from competition – the IAAF already allows people with “complete or almost complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome” to compete without question.

However, for those who are concerned about whether Semenya has an “unfair advantage” due to having testes, we should look again at these reports. As I’ve said, if they’re correct, Semenya has AIS. So even though Semenya supposedly has undescended testes that produce more testosterone than the “female” mean, Semenya’s body cannot turn that testosterone into the muscle advantage cited as the reason for sex segregation in sports. Semenya probably does have other advantages, such as increased height, because of AIS. However, we routinely allow athletes who are especially tall to compete. This isn’t much of an unfair advantage. The only reason Semenya’s genetics are even an issue here is because the potentially advantageous genes in question might be on those socially fraught sex chromosomes.

The next question is whether Semenya will be able to compete again. Unfortunately, Semenya will likely be pressured into having the testes removed, both by the sports establishment, which will seek to avoid controversy about allowing Semenya to compete, and by the medical establishment, which usually recommends surgery to remove internal testes in all cases, officially because the testes are at risk for developing cancer. However, since it’s possible to provide appropriate care by monitoring the testes and removing them when the first signs of cancer appear, I suspect that a better explanation is the medical establishment’s historical practice of “normalizing” or “correcting” intersex people’s genitalia. If Semenya wants to run again, it seems very likely that these organs will have to be removed.

Following that surgery, good medical practice would offer Semenya a choice between “male” and “female” hormone replacement therapy. Sadly, South Africa’s strong support for Semenya during this spat probably comes with the price of ostracizing the runner if Semenya doesn’t want “female” hormone replacement therapy.

Everyone – including the IAAF, the media, and even Semenya’s South African supporters – needs to step back and let Semenya alone decide how to proceed. At present, any involvement with this case will only lead to more harm and will interfere with Semenya’s ability to make these deeply personal decisions.

Quinn Albaugh is a U3 Political Science student. Write Quinn at quinn.albaugh@gmail.com.


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