The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, has ruled that elite South African runner and Olympic champion Caster Semenya cannot compete with other women in endurance races, because her body naturally produces too much testosterone, giving her an “unfair” advantage.
Semenya is intersex. She appears to be a woman, but she has an XY chromosome on the 23rd pair, so genetically she is a man. But because her body lacks certain receptors, she never developed into a man — female being nature’s default position for any fetus. Yet she lacks a female reproductive system, so she cannot give birth.
For those who are still not getting the picture: She has undescended testes and a vagina. So she was pronounced a girl at birth, raised as a girl and thinks of herself as a woman. She is a woman.
You can imagine the reactions to this, which are all over the place. But let’s break it down, shall we? First, legally, she hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s not taking performance-enhancing substances. Indeed, she refuses to take the female hormones that the court says would level the playing field. She has done nothing to defraud her competition or the public.
Does testosterone enhance athletic performance? I think it does and so do medical experts. But every athlete has natural advantages that he or she can use in honing skills and talent, such as Michael Phelps did with his perfect swimmer’s build — long torso, long wing span and big, flipper feet, as Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist, noted on the “PBS NewsHour.”
There are those who say Brennan’s is a specious argument, that we don’t classify athletes by wing span but by male and female (except in equestrian sports, where men and women compete together, because the horse is primarily what counts). But Semenya isn’t a man. So if we classify by male and female, by that argument alone she must be a woman.
I think there are a number of other, ugly things going on here. She is not the traditionally glamorous Flo Jo track star — referring, of course, to the late, great Florence Griffith Joyner (1959-1998), considered the fastest woman ever on the basis that her world records for the 100-meter and 200-meter races still stand. Flo Jo — taken from us too young during an epileptic seizure in her sleep — was the epitome of style with her color coordinated outfits, flowing tresses and signature vibrantly colored finger nails. Not everyone is a fashion plate, however.
And that brings us to two isms — sexism and lookism. We don’t like women who aren’t traditionally feminine, because it upsets the hierarchy and the patriarchy. Both Elizabeth I and the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, were considered XY women, though there is no scientific or historical data to back this up, only the knowledge that no one can forgive Wallis for taking Edward VIII away from England, as he was forced to abdicate to marry the alluring divorcée, and that an adviser once described Elizabeth, the “VIrgin Queen” who was perhaps England’s greatest monarch, as “more than a man but less than a woman.” These were smart, strong, ambitious broads. So, of course, they “thought like a man.” Maybe they just thought like a woman.
As for lookism, there are any number of Hollywood doctors who will tell you that you’d be surprised to discover the top actresses who were also XY and adopt children, because they can’t have any. But they’re beautiful and fashionable — indeed XY women often have luxurious hair, high breasts and long legs — and therefore they fly under the radar because they conform to what we think a woman should look like (or rather they conform to a man’s Barbie Doll fantasy of what a woman should look like). Should we be conducting genetic testing and have them compete for Best Actor? Nonsense.
On the “PBS NewsHour” segment, Brennan said the Semenya ruling has broader implications for transgender athletes. What if 1976 Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner had competed as Caitlyn Jenner? I think we should let people compete — should let people be — the gender they identify with, because gender is more than physical. What you think you are is who you are.
And for those who are afraid that this is some sort of perversion, freak show, child abuse or mental illness, I say, What are you really afraid of? That life isn’t fair? Really.
There’s more to winning than sex and hormones. Consider the case of the tennis player Renée Richards, a transgender woman who began life as Richard Raskind, became a (male) ophthalmologist and later the number 20-ranked player on the women’s tour after having gender reassignment surgery at age 41. In the 1970s, her case engendered the same arguments and lawsuits we’re seeing today. Ultimately, a judge ruled for her and against the United States Tennis Association and the United States Olympic Committee and she was allowed to compete as the woman she was. As such, she was good but not great.
Today, a Park Avenue eye doctor who lives outside New York City, she says that had she had the surgery at 22, instead of 41, no woman would’ve come close to her on the court, because of her past physical life as a man.
That’s debatable. Lost in the gender argument is one simple fact. Gender is only part of the equation. To get to the top, you have to have great heart, great discipline and great talent.