Caster Semenya is an 18-year-old South African runner at the heart of a sad controversy currently brewing over gender and athletics. The cause of the debate? Whether she is a man or a woman. The evidence? She is really, really fast.
That’s it. She doesn’t have a visible penis, or a goatee, or an Adam’s Apple. She doesn’t pee standing up or turn her head and cough at check-ups. She’s just fast – she won the World Championships in Berlin last week, beating her nearest rival in the women's 800-meter race by a giant 2.45 seconds. But apparently, certain sports officials think only boys…or women on drugs…can run like that.
Australian newspaper The Age said her "physique and powerful style have sparked speculation in recent months that she may not be entirely female."
Her running coach Michael Seme said, unfortunately (my word), “We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It's a natural reaction and it's only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her room-mates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide."
Her father, Jacob, told a local South African newspaper, “She is my little girl. ... I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times.”
First of all, watch this video and tell me if I’m alone in thinking, “That is obviously a woman.” Sure, she’s got uber-slim hips and shredded abs. But she’s an elite, top-ranked runner! She can run a half-mile faster than I can drive from Chicago to Wisconsin. And she’s not all dolled up with makeup or elaborate hair or long nails or an evening gown. Guess what, people? That don’t make her a boy. The fact that, walking down the street, she might make a handful of people to briefly wonder, “Wait, was that a man or a woman?” does not mean she deserves to be put through a humiliating panel of gender determination tests, including gynecological, psychological and endocrinology-based exams, as she is currently being forced to do. (Gender testing used to be mandatory for female athletes at the Olympics, but in 1999 the screenings were halted. One reason: Not every woman has standard female chromosomes, and there are a host of conditions which can cause people to have ambiguous genitalia or other chromosomal abnormalities.)
And so what of reports that she was a tomboy as a child, that she liked wearing pants more than dresses? That isn’t evidence of her being XY. That just means she probably had an active, fun childhood unencumbered by fussy clothing, her time spent running free instead of playing with dolls.
Oh, and there’s this little thing called a birth certificate which, quite clearly, states “Sex: FEMALE.”
I mean, Venus and Serena Williams look like this, and no one questions their chromosomal makeup. But strip away the ringlets, clothes and makeup and the only real things separating them from Semenya are thier racks. And consider Olympic figure skater and flamboyant U.S. Figure Skating National Champion Johnny Weir - he doesn’t look especially Tom Selleck-y but no one made him undergo rigorous prostate exams to prove he’s a guy. (Of course, everyone pounced on his sexuality, but what do you expect from our intolerant society?) Should we demonize Semenya and her boyishness so far that we drive her to the point Andreas Krieger was driven?
But even deeper than her physical appearance is the question: What makes a woman a woman? Does she need to be curvy and one-up? Many, many bird-like models lack hips, and even more women hate wearing makeup and skirts. Does she need to be gentle and delicate? Today’s modern woman is assertive, strong, gutsy. Take it even further: Does she need to have breasts? Some women lose their breasts to cancer. Are they no longer women? Does she need to have a uterus or bear children? Of course not. (Then there’s the discussion surrounding gender versus sex, and the fact that I consider a person born a boy but who lives her life as a woman to be female, but that’s a book-length blog for the future.)
Caster Semenya is a woman. She is not a “sex-riddle daughter,” as some obnoxious headlines claim. She was born a girl, she was raised as a girl. She considers herself a woman. Leave. Her. Alone.
Oh, and if for some reason the gender tests come back and she is found to have a Y chromosome, in my mind, that is not the same thing as not being a woman. As Nick Davies, spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations, told the BBC, "You're talking about someone's life. She was born, christened and grew up a woman.” In other runner news, here’s an interesting story about elite marathoner Tera Moody, 28,speaking out about the battle with anorexia that nearly ruined her career and threatened her life. Moody has become after years battling an eating disorder that nearly ended her running career.