There's a lot to talk about when it comes to Caster, but I'll preface this by saying that finding out that there are some people who are unwilling to accept her gender (using that term intentionally) at face value, online commenters from all over the world calling her a "freak" and worse, and losing the one thing that she worked so much for and in which she was very talented, all at age 18, has to be hard on her.
The IAAF, the governing body behind international track and field events, hasn't released the official results of Caster Semenya's gender tests, and are requesting that she get some more done (according to the Telegraph yesterday). But a source leaked the results to the same paper the day before, and apparently she has a body that doesn't fit neatly into the binary.
Media coverage has been mixed. For example, while the Telegraph used the inappropriate word "hermaphrodite" to describe her in their original report, they added the word "inter-sex" alongside "hermaphrodite" in their update. They also didn't say that her described condition is "deadly" again. Baby steps.
The traditional media coverage of Caster's body and genitalia has generally avoided making any distinction between "gender" and "sex," completely ignoring the fact that no matter what her reproductive organs look like, most likely she identifies as a woman. That's not a trifle, that's not a delusion, that's not a sidenote; it's the way she's wired and there's nothing a doctor, the IAAF, prayer, or ignorant people with an opinion about her body can do to change that.
That's where this discussion starts: Caster is a woman if she identifies and lives her life as a woman. The question is whether her body gives her an unfair advantage in women's athletics, not what her gender is.
The IAAF is trying to figure out what to do, and the Telegraph is reporting that they might ban her for her unfair advantage. They want to talk to her but apparently she's generally unavailable for comment:
However, the world governing body's frustration was obvious in comments from its media director Nick Davies, who said: "ASA's actions can have serious consequences for Semenya if we are not able to speak to her soon.
"In short, it will come down to her refusing to co-operate. Had it been a drugs issue, she would have been suspended a long time ago, but this is a unique problem for which the IAAF's rules do not make provision. It is important for us to talk to her about the results of the tests.''
Pam has a round-up of some of the stranger comments people are leaving around the internet about Caster (warning: don't follow the link unless you're prepared for your brain to hurt). Some people are insisting that Caster is a "man," without knowing her, assuming that if she has testicles and no uterus, then she's close enough (apparently, sex and gender are like horseshoes).
And the IAAF is worried about the unfair advantage she has in these competitions. I wouldn't go so far, since everyone involved in that level of track competition has an unfair advantage of some sort. I'll say right now, no matter how hard I train for the 800 meter, I'll never go to the Olympics. Genetics just didn't give me a body to do that with, and it has nothing to do with gender. I'm perfectly fine with that knowledge, but someone who trains extensively in high school and college athletics who wants to go pro but just never gets an 800-meter time low enough to compete might think life is unfair, even if it's controlled for sex.
Those folks who do compete on that level have other "unfair advantages," longer legs, a stronger heart, better balance, lots of different features that people have no control over give them the edge necessary to win at these sports. A man who's 5'4" is going to have a bit more trouble playing pro football than a man who's 6'4". Does that mean that the taller man has an "unfair advantage"? Should he be disqualified so the shorter man can have a chance?
Why is it that the only unfair advantages (that people are born with) we're concerned about have to do with sex, when people don't choose their genome and it's filled with unfair advantages and disadvantages that have nothing to do with the X or Y chromosomes or how the genes on them are expressed? Humans have 44 non-sex chromosomes and 2 sex chromosomes, and the only reason we care so much more about those 2 is because of political and cultural reasons. And any decision the IAAF makes will be about those cultural and political reasons more than any objective form of "fairness."
On the other hand, women's athletics exist for a reason. While Caster set the fastest time in the women's 800 meters this year with 1:55, men at the Olympics last year were running the same distance in the 1:40's. In a race that comes down to the hundredth of a second, that difference is big enough to require that something be done to allow women to compete and win regularly.
Men generally have more testosterone than women, and testosterone is literally a performance-enhancing substance (remember how Floyd Landis got disqualified from the Tour de France in 2006 because he tested positive for testosterone doping?). If we do consider women competing in athletics important, women's sports will have to continue, and there will have to continue to be a definition for "woman."
The issue that the IAAF has to address is whether she has an unfair advantage over other female athletes. While the Telegraph described her as having a "deadly" condition (no time like the present for a little scare-mongering, huh?), she's lived like that for 18 years and hasn't had problems yet. At the very least, it doesn't sound like an emergency.
Here are the IAAF's regulations when it comes to intersex people:
2. In resolving cases that may arise, determination should not be done solely on laboratory based sex determination; [...]
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
- 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).
The formidable Zoe Brain has more on Caster's situation:
If the reports are correct, Ms Semanya has PAIS-6. Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome grade 6, where grade 7 is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS).[...]
Unlike other women, she cannot get the full performance benefits of testosterone, since she's almost immune to the stuff. Having three times the female average could well be less effective when it comes to building muscle mass than a normal amount in an average women. Many female athletes have high natural levels of testosterone anyway - though still a third or less of an average male, and a tenth of a male athlete.
As regards the "dangerous condition" of internal testes, the danger isn't exactly immediate. There's a tenfold normal risk of cancer, and it would be wise to have 6-monthly checks, and gonadectomy if any pre-cancerous lesions are found, but that's it. At worst, 1 in 50, and the estrogen, the female sex hormone also produced by the testes, is useful for preventing oteopyrosis and other conditions, so it's swings and roundabouts. The real reason for gonadectomy is to stop other people from being upset about the idea of a woman with testes in her body.
To be clear, the response to internal testicles isn't always to remove them. I know a woman who, when she was born, was put through surgery to have them put on the outside. She transitioned later in life - the folks who operated on her body to make her fit their idea of what a man should look like guessed incorrectly.
Who knows how Caster actually identifies, considering the incredible financial and political pressure on her now? Or how she will identify, or realize that she identifies, a few years from now? She is 18, and many people who are told they're one gender all their lives don't realize that they're different before age 18. Any rush to surgery seems completely unnecessary, and would take her out of competition for at least two years according to IAAF rules anyway.
It's up the IAAF to decide what happens now, and this is a complicated situation that doesn't have an easy answer that won't hurt someone in the end. I'll wait until the full, official results come out, but if Zoe's right, it sounds like Caster should be able to continue to compete.