Caster Semenya is an 18-year-old sprinter from South Africa who won the gold medal in the 800-meter race this past summer at the World Championships in Athletics in Berlin. Her break-though performance caught the world’s attention as she set a championship record with her results as well. Unfortunately, it is not Semenya’s impressive running times that now have the media’s attention. Shortly after her win, questions about Semenya’s “gender” surfaced, causing athletic officials to make formal inquiries into whether she should have been competing as a female. In fact, this obtrusive inquisition caused Semenya to avoid the medal ceremony at the world championships completely.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) recognized as the world’s governing body of athletics, released a statement about the Caster Sememya situation shortly after the championships in Berlin took place, saying, “We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts. No decision on the case will be communicated until the IAAF has had the opportunity to complete this examination. We do not expect to make a final decision on this case before the next meeting of the IAAF Council which takes place in Monaco on Nov. 20-21.” This statement was made on Sept. 11, and three months is a long time to expect her to wait when her entire future is on the line. It is also an even longer time to wait for the results of a misnamed test that is really seeking to identity Semenya’s biological sex, not her gender.
The IAAF and the mainstream media have been confusing these two facets of our identities — sex and gender — by assuming that they are the same thing. But this is not the case. To clarify, Reece Lagartera, education program coordinator of Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre, offers the following explanation regarding the intricacies of sex and gender: “There are indeed distinct differences between sex and gender. When we use the term sex, we refer to one’s anatomical makeup: male, female, intersex. When we use the term gender — or more specifically, gender identity, we refer to one’s internal feelings or sense of maleness and femaleness.” This means that sex is physically determined at birth, and gender is a result of internal feelings and external socialization.
Lagartera goes on to explain, “Our gender identity is independent from our anatomical make-up. One can have a plethora of intersex conditions, for example higher levels of testosterone in females, internal ovaries in biological men, breast tissue in biological men, elongated clitoral growth in biological women, etc., and still feel an internal sense of either male, female, a combination of both or none at all.” Given these distinctions, gender is largely a subjective manifestation, and certainly not something that is testable.
It is then Semenya’s anatomical organs, her biological sex, which has athletic and medical authorities perplexed. Lagartera concurs, “Caster’s gender isn’t in question, as she identifies as female, but what is in question is whether there’s an intersex condition that impacts her ability to compete with other females.”
It is now the beginning of December and Semenya’s future competitive running career is still up in the air. An updated IAAF statement released Nov. 18 reads, “The IAAF, the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Caster Semenya’s representatives have been and still are in discussions with a view to resolving the issues surrounding Caster Semenya’s participation in athletics. The IAAF will not comment upon the medical aspects of Caster Semenya’s case. The medical testing of the athlete is still to be completed.”
The misperceptions and ambiguity surrounding Semenya’s case are astounding. It is likely that the confusion between sex and gender are contributing to the official silence surrounding the matter. One positive decision that has come out of this case is that Semenya will not have to return the gold medal that she won at the world championships. Those results will stand, however, it is this 18-year old’s promising athletic future that lies in the IAAF’s hands.
Perhaps solace can be found knowing Semenya’s situation has brought the complexities of the often taboo subjects of sex and gender diversity into the public spotlight.