Friday, August 21, 2009

On Caster Semenya

I've been leaving the whole uproar over Caster Semenya alone to this point.

The sidebar in the Toronto Star article above contains quite a list of the possible reasons that explain why Ms. Semenya appears quite androgynous:

The most common cause of sexual ambiguity is congenital adrenal hyperplasia, an endocrine disorder where the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of hormones.
In women, this means a masculine appearance. They may have female sexual organs, but the ovaries may be unable to produce estrogen, preventing the growth of breasts or pubic hair.
There are also several rare chromosomal disorders where women may have some male characteristics. Women with Turner syndrome, which affects about one in 2,000 babies, typically have broad chests and very small breasts. Their ovaries do not develop normally and they cannot ovulate.

If, in the remote possibility that Ms. Semenya is a transsexual, as long as she is competing within the guidelines and rules of the governing body (IAAF in this case), it should also be a non-issue. In 2006, the IAAF released the following rules regarding transsexual and intersex competitors:

5. Reconstructive surgery and sex reassignment
- if sex change operations as well as appropriate hormone replacement
therapy are performed before puberty then the athlete is allowed to
compete as a female
- if the sex change and hormone therapy is done after puberty then the athlete has to wait two years after gonadectomy before a physical and endocrinological evaluation is conducted (The crux of the matter is that the athlete should not be enjoying the benefits of natural testosterone predominance normally seen in a male)

6. Conditions that should be allowed:
(a) Those conditions that accord no advantage over other females:
- Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete - previously called testicular feminization);
- Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoid malignancy);
- Turner’s syndrome.
(b) Those conditions that may accord some advantages but nevertheless
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia;
- Androgen producing tumors;
- Anovulatory androgen excess (polycystic ovary syndrome).

To me, this seems pretty basic, and not too difficult to understand.

Then there's what I'm finding "Christian" organizations saying:

Steve McConkey of 4 WINDS, a Christian track and field ministry, tried to persuade the U.S. and International Olympic Committees that this was going to create future problems. During that time, Steve mentioned that it would be possible for a country in Africa to have a male compete as a female.

To avoid confusion, 4 WINDS suggested that the IOC should follow genetic chromosome tests as an indicator of the sex of a person. The IOC was warned that future problems would come up if they did not make this a policy.

Oh yes - the vaunted precision of chromosome tests. Except what does one do with the plethora of intersex conditions that are chromosomal? Forbid those people from competing altogether? What about cases where the person is intersex, and happens to appear outwardly "gender normal"? (Lots of those out there, too) Determining sex is not as simple as "XY=male" and "XX=female".

The Star has done an excellent job of covering the difficulties of using any singular testing model to verify gender today.

However, the uproar over this also carries with it a couple of dimensions that are exceedingly bothersome apart from the Intersex/Transsexual aspect of the coverage. I take some exception to the "omigod, she might actually be a MAN" statements. This is another form of the "deceitful transsexual" meme that so often goes around when a transsexual turns up dead after a boyfriend beats them to a pulp. It is demeaning and insulting to both Intersex and Transsexual people that these kinds of memes are repeated on a seemingly daily basis.

Then there is the seeming paranoia around having someone with a "male past" competing as a woman. The argument gets made that there's some kind of "advantage" athletically to having been born male. Anecdotally, there isn't. Once a Male to Female (MTF) transsexual has been on hormones for a couple of years, their body will not develop a masculine musculature, and in fact the power and endurance of the muscles will shift towards female normal levels. The male musculature is heavily influenced by the presence of testosterone - in large quantities. Additionally, the MTF transsexual has a male skeletal structure, which is markedly heavier than that for a natal female of the same approximate height. So, one can argue that in fact the MTF transsexual is in fact at a disadvantage because they will have a feminized musculature that is moving a heavier frame about. Unless the slight differences in proportions between male and female skeletal structures provide a significant mechanical advantage in motion, it's hard to imagine how there's any advantage whatsoever.

Whether Ms. Semenya is normal female, Intersex or even transsexual really should not be subject to such public scrutiny. The coverage is misguided, filled with innuendo and speculation and ignores the dignity of the person.

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