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Bias Against Caster Semenya Shows Measuring 'Womanhood' Is Impossible


Sporting officials need to stop using testosterone as the final word on gender.

The international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled yesterday that athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone must medically alter themselves to compete in women's categories.

Rulemakers from the CAS themselves previously agreed that evidence for testosterone as an isolated factor for performance advantage was not strong enough to warrant "discriminating against women with high levels of the hormone."

But testosterone levels have never been policed in men's categories, and have long been debunked as granting an advantage. And if that's what matters, why haven't we heard much in this debate regarding male transgender athletes?

Intersex people, who will be among the most affected by this decision, know what it's like to be forced to alter our bodies. At every level of society, we are told this. Often we are forced to endure irreversible procedures as infants, such as clitoral reductions, because doctors assume our bodies will have to be changed to be accepted. Like trans athletes, intersex athletes have all kinds of testosterone levels, and some of us cannot even process the hormone at all.

Intersex has become a highly political term, and not a very well understood one at that. Broadly, it's a word that refers to any person whose body has some unexpected expression of sex traits, including hormones. Intersex people can have any gender and sexual orientation.

Many intersex people take pride in the word and the unique history it represents. Some others reject the label as an identity, questioning the idea that their experiences should be defined as an othered category. Some prefer instead to emphasize how they expand variety within the two understood sex categories of male and female, sticking to the medical term "difference of sex development." Others express a desire to scrap our understanding of those categorical boundaries altogether. We're all different.

In discussing Semenya, it's critical to remember that she herself has never used the word "intersex" to describe herself. And why should she? The poorly understood term could only draw more scrutiny from authorities seeking to damage her career. Her womanhood has already been publicly scrutinized in deeply unfair ways. She has previously expressed, quite simply: "I am a woman and I am fast."

Semenya's privacy was violated when her medical information was leaked due to the scale of her case. We should be angry for that, just as much as we are for the discrimination her case represents. Semenya deserves to shine for her natural gifts, just like anyone else.

All human traits exist on spectrums. If someone's natural body is suited to sport, that's competition. If someone's body produces a different hormonal environment, that fact of their body is no different than their height, weight, or other traits, all of which form a complex effect on performance that is likewise affected by environmental advantages such as access to training resources.

Intersex women are women. Transgender women are women. Women have all kinds of bodies. Sex is not a scientific or objective category. It must be understood as fluid and affected by social ideas, just as much as gender. Intersex and transgender women are incredibly different from cisgender men physically, psychologically, or biologically.

It's also impossible to discuss the issues of using sex as a competitive category without talking about who gets to define the parameters of that category. Who gets to decide what falls within "woman?"

Systematic policies aimed at finding a "true" marker of womanhood have always been based on European doctors' ideals of femininity, which have always been race-based -- with petite, white women being the gold standard. Not coincidentally, it was authorities in Switzerland who ruled on Caster's case. The most vocal proponents of restricting Caster were those who already met and benefitted from narrower, policed standards of femininity.

Historically, intersex bodies caused panic because they threatened multiple systems of power. The idea was, that if people existed "between sexes," had sex traits on a spectrum, or had sex traits that changed after puberty, it was unclear who would receive and keep male privilege. In parallel, early European doctors arguing for scientific racism also feared the idea that people could change or transcend their racialized traits to access white privilege. Black intersex people faced the highest level of scrutiny, with their bodily sex differences being attributed to racial inferiority. Science, medicine, and biology have always been used to justify and enforce socially defined, subjective categories.

The sporting world has long struggled with enforcement problems stemming from its choice of using "sex" as its way to separate competition categories. Doing so requires defining what factors separate two sex categories. Naturally, there are many outliers. Before markers like hormone levels or sex chromosomes were discovered, athletes were subjected to naked exams. Doctors were called upon to make judgments on height, weight, genitalia, and muscle mass, based on their own mental picture of womanhood.

Once scrutinizing women athletes' genitalia became frowned upon, pioneers like Renee Richards pushed back against a newer practice, chromosome testing, which served to police transgender women. XY intersex athletes with "female-typical" genitalia threw the chromosome model out the window, leading to the most recent trend of policing womanhood in athletics: testosterone. The goalposts for a measurable boundary of womanhood have always moved from trait to trait, and always in ways that best suit petite, feminine, cisgender and non-intersex white women.

LGBTQIA+ progressives fight for understanding that "woman" should be a category of self determination. When we allow sport to define the category of "woman" by bodily markers, we set a precedent against intersex and transgender rights in all other areas of public life. Relegating womanhood to bodily traits is key in defenses of both anti-trans bathroom bills and surgeries like vaginoplasties commonly performed on intersex infants.

No other groups of women are expected to alter their bodies to reduce their performance. This discrimination is a stark move in the wrong direction. It is also far reaching: the International Olympic Committee is observing Semenya's case to make future recommendations. It's clear that the quest to police athletes' womanhood is far from over.

Hans Lindahl is the communications director for interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth.

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