Communists, Germaine Greer Weigh In On Semenya Sex Controversy

Illustration for article titled Communists, Germaine Greer Weigh In On Semenya Sex Controversy

As more details emerge about which intersex conditions would stop runner Caster Semenya from competing as a woman, even Germaine Greer has something to say.


As reported yesterday, sports officials suspect Semenya not of hiding her true identity as a man, but rather of unknowingly having a medical condition that might give her some male characteristics. Thomas H. Maugh II of the LA Times lists a variety of possibilities. Simply having an XY set of sex chromosomes, he points out, wouldn't make her physiologically male — she could have an enzyme deficiency that prevents her body from processing testosterone or producing fully-formed male genitalia. Or she might have androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which testosterone receptors are defective, or mosaicism, a combination of XX and XY cells. If she does have XX chromosomes, she might still have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, an excess of testosterone produced by the adrenal glands. Not all of these conditions would cause the International Association of Athletics Federations to bar Semenya from competing. The question, says Maugh, is, "Does the abnormality give an unusual benefit?"

Testing continues, but IAAF spokesman Nick Davies says Semenya won't necessarily be stripped of her gold medal even if she is found to be "male." He says, "Legally if you are found to be of a different sex to that declared that is not cheating [...] It is a very delicate matter." Her coach, Michael Seme, says this speculation is nothing new for Semenya, and she doesn't let it get to her: "The remarkable thing is that Caster remains completely calm and never loses her dignity when she is questioned about her gender." However, according to Athletics South Africa president Leonard Chuene, the new, high-stakes debate over her sex is taking its toll. Of her gold medal win, he says,

She said she did not want to go on the podium, but I told her she must. She is not rejoicing. She [didn't] want the medal. She told me: 'No one ever said I was not a girl, but here [in Berlin] I am not. I am not a boy. Why did you bring me here? You should have left me in my village at home'.


Some criticisms against Semenya have been cruel and ill-informed (her competitor Elisa Cusma of Italy said, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she's not a woman. She's a man."), and it's not surprising if the 18-year-old Semenya is affected by them. However, she's also receiving expressions of support. South Africa's Daily Dispatch says,

It would seem it is acceptable for masculine-looking women to compete as long as they lose. When they win they must have a 'gender test'.

The Young Communist league alleges that criticisms of Semenya have a racist origin, saying, "This smacks of racism of the highest order. It represents a mentality of conforming feminine outlook within the white race." And an odd defense of Semenya comes from none other than Germaine Greer. Greer writes in the Guardian,

Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women's names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn't polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man's delusion that he is female.


It's hard to see how mocking male-to-female transsexuals helps Semenya's cause, but Greer goes on to point out that intersex people have been historically mistreated in women's sports. She writes,

After more than 6,000 tests [in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics] no instance of a male athlete knowingly misrepresenting his gender had been identified. Instead the tests picked up developmental sexual disorders in a number of women who didn't know they had them. The intersexual women could not be distinguished in appearance or performance from other XX female athletes. All the mass testing accomplished was the embarrassment of a small number of athletes and in one case at least her unfair exclusion from competition, and so it was abandoned.


Her creepy denunciation of transsexuals aside, this is an important reminder that gender tests hardly ever identify actual cheating (the last known case of such cheating appears to be that of Dora Ratjen, who was actually a man and bound her male genitals to compete in the 1936 Olympics). What they may identify is conditions that give athletes an advantage over their competitors. But, says Greer,

[D]oesn't all competitive sport canonise and glamorise the exploitation of genetic advantage? Who said life was fair?


Row Over South African Athlete Highlights Ambiguities Of Gender [LA Times]
Caster Semenya Sex Row: 'She's My Little Girl,' Says Father [Guardian]
Semenya Considered Rejecting 800m Medal [Sydney Morning Herald]
Gold Awarded Amid Dispute Over Runner's Sex [NYT]
Caster Semenya Sex Row: What Makes A Woman? [Guardian]

Earlier: Semenya Takes Gold, But Gender Issue Is Ongoing

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Erin Gloria Ryan

Oh, Italians. So progressive about gender.