Caster Semenya is a intersex, cisgender woman with a condition called hyperandrogenism and XY chromosomes. She is also a 29-year-old middle distance track runner and an Olympic gold medalist. Hailing from South Africa, the amazing athlete has won three World Championship gold medals for the 800 meter run. After Semenya won her first gold at the 2009 World Championships, many became suspicious about her sex, and she was subjected to testing. (As admitted by Athletics South Africa President Leonard Chuene, both Semenya and the administrators of the sex test were lied to about the true purpose of the testing.) After much controversy, Semenya was allowed back into competition; in both 2011 and 2012, she won a silver that turned into gold after the previous gold medalist was disqualified for doping.
In 2016, when Semenya set a new record for the 800 meters, other competitors began to complain. Notably, sixth place Lynsey Sharp cried while Semenya tried to comfort her, and 5th place Joanna Jóźwik felt like she deserved silver because she was the “first European and second white” to finish. She also added that the reason the three Black women who won were so successful were their elevated testosterone levels: “That’s why they look how they look and run how they run.”
In 2018, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) reversed the previous suspension on the testosterone limit specifically for the 400m, 800m, and 1500m races (the only races Semenya had previously run, which raised suspicion that it was aimed at her). Later the rule was changed to only place testosterone limits on 46 XY women with hyperandrogenism and not XX. These decisions were met with mixed reactions: some supported the change of rules, saying that they were for the protection of female athletes, while others criticized the implications on intersex and trans women.
When my biology teacher taught us about Caster Semenya, he highlighted her “unnatural” muscles and times. He made sure to stress that this was “a biological discussion, not a political one”. Despite that class being such a biological discussion, he did not mention the word “intersex”. He did not mention the variety of chromosomes across humans. He did not teach us that sex is made of chromosomal arrangements, hormone levels, and primary and secondary sex traits. He pointed out how she looked and how she was faster than other women.
After losing an appeal to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, Semenya recently announced that she would not nonconsensually take hormone replacement therapy so that she can qualify for the 400m, and is instead opting for the 200m. When I heard about this, the first things that came to mind were these:
This ruling will impact thousands of intersex women, and not necessarily fairly.
A large portion of the discrimination against Semenya stems from her Blackness, as Black women are often masculinized or seen as “aggressive”.
Men’s bodies are not policed the way women’s are.
These three points, which can respectively be generalized as transphobia and sexism (or more specifically, intersexism), racism, and misogyny. While on the surface we think that women’s sports should be made fair to all women, asking questions about how best to do that is a very important conversation to have. And the implications those rules have on women outside of sports is even more pressing.
First, intersex people are excluded from consideration in almost every gendered space. But what does intersex mean, exactly? According to Merriam Webster, intersexuality is, “the condition of either having both male and female gonadal tissue in one individual or of having the gonads of one sex and external genitalia that is of the other sex or is ambiguous.” Basically, intersexuality is when an individual has charasteristics of more than one sex, proving that neither sex nor gender are binary. Because sex is viewed as binary in legal terms (and in the general society as well), intersex people face discrimination such as corrective surgery or medical photographing and stigmatization.
The ruling that a women like Caster Semenya must go through hormone replacement therapy (commonly abbreviated as HRT) to compete is a clear sign of discrimination against intersex people. Not only does the ruling force people to alter their natural bodies and go through the side effects of HRT solely for the comfort of others, it also affirms the stigma that there are set boundaries for being a women — boundaries that name intersex women as “unnatural” or “otherly”. The Swiss Federation Supreme Court’s ruling is a first-world reflection of the infanticide, mutilization, and poor mental health that intersex people face worldwide.
So let’s get this straight: intersexuality is natural and not something that needs to be fixed. Intersex women who identify themselves as women should be able to compete with other women, as should trans women. Athletic ability is made from training, nutrition, coaching, the environment, and a small amount of genetic ability—that much is true. But if we don’t discriminate based on lung capacity, metabolism, height, weight, or arm span, why discriminate on this? To “protect” cis people? As best put by trans cyclist Rachel McKinnon, “The very idea that we must ‘protect’ cis women’s—or ‘female’—sport from trans women, who are legally female, too, is an irrational fear of trans women, which is the dictionary definition of transphobia.” Trans and intersex women are not so different in ability or other categories from all other women, and this is supported by every scientific data available to us. Any minute difference is, as always, a result of the diversity of athletes and humans in general.
Second, several of the remarks complaining against Semenya specifically can be related to the fact that she is a Black woman. Across history, Black women have been portrayed as masculine and aggressive. First to dehumanize them in slavery, then to make them seem separate from white women, revealed in Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”. (At first, the word “woman” did not refer to Black women at all; they were merely called slaves.) Now, the stereotypes are subtle influences that levy devastation against women of color: Black women feel less pain, and need less anaesthetic or medication. Black women are aggressive, loud, angry. Black women are more grown-up than white women (a result of fetishization—often these prejudices go hand in hand). Black queer and LGBT+ women are predators in private female spaces like bathrooms.
In sports, this is seen as Black women like Serena Williams and Caster Semenya having to justify their womanhood, and sometimes having to alter their bodies to cater to white competitors. In one incident, Shamil Tarpischev referred to the Williams sisters as “the Williams brothers” and “scary to look at”. These sentiments are echoed widely and have very real effects. Black women are twice as likely than white women to be murdered by a man. One in four Black girls are subjected to sexual abuse before reaching adulthood. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth. Issues that impact them disproportionately are given little government funding. Braids are often banned as “unprofessional” and Black women who dare to speak out against toxic work environments are labelled the same. We see the same things over and over and over: dismissal of their issues, expecting them to be stronger than the things we throw at them.
And personally, I find it hard to believe that if Semenya or Williams were a white woman, they would be subjected to the same amount of scrutiny. I think it’s far more likely their bodies would be praised as the result of training and their victories hailed as record-breaking — as Semenya’s and Williams’ should be.
The same logic applies to the difference between men’s sports and women’s sports. No one has questioned whether Michael Phelps should be competing against others, even given his superior wingspan, torso length, and reduced lactic acid production. In fact, he is praised for it. So why are women’s sports seen as something to be made fair, to be reduced as to be equal? Is this mistaken attempt at fairness really a view of women as the weaker sex?
Not only that, but no one would dare violate a man’s body in a professional environment as they do a woman’s. I’m not pointing out sexual harassment and assault (although I’m not not doing that), but rather the humiliation Semenya and other female athletes have gone through in sex testing. Neither Semenya nor Dutee Chand (the infamous case that caused the IAAF to rule against testosterone limits in 2015, before they reversed it in 2018) knew why they were being tested. Chand recalls being puzzled a doctor gave her an ultrasound after her win at Taipei; he later claimed that she was complaining of abdominal pain, although she says she did no such thing. Chand described the humiliation of people probing her genitals, her breasts, her vulva. Semenya also stated that she felt emotionally drained from the scrutiny of the public when she appealed to the Swiss Federation Supreme Court.
The reason I say we would not do this to a man is because society has always remarked on the female physique more (of course, in medicine, the one place it would help, this is not the case; men were usually studied first in medicinal testing and a lot of medicine is made for the average white man, including heart attack symptoms). Whether it’s abortion or street harassment or workplace harassment, women’s bodies are discussed more invasively, even if it isn’t in a derogatory manner. For example, there is no legislation that encroaches on a man’s bodily autonomy (as long as they do not hurt others, of course) but there is abortion legislature in every country. In the United States, women used to need their spouse’s consent to have a hysterectomy. Women’s bodies are also put on show commonly in media. I remember feeling uncomfortable with the fact that my brother’s superhero posters and video games always featured scantily clad women in heels.
In summary, women should not have to prove their validity in sports or in any other field. If we do not question whether Phelps is “actually a man”, we should not question whether Semenya is “actually a woman”. Intersex women should not have to prove their gender, and neither should trans or Black women, and any other argument that cisgender white women need to be protected is derogatory to all parties. We are all woman enough.