Proving Gender

Last week, the South African Sports Ministry announced that Caster Semenya will be able to keep her gold medal and the prize money that she received by winning the 800 meters race at the 2009 World Track and Field Championships in Berlin this past August.  This announcement partly resolves one of the most controversial stories in sports and gender testing this year.  Just months before winning the 800 meters race, Semenya emerged onto track and field with a muscularity and look that had officials questioning her eligibility to compete as a woman.  At the time she won the gold medal in the 800 meters, she had already been subjected to sex-verification testing by the International Association of Athletics Fedration (IAAF); however, the test results had not been determined yet so she was allowed to compete.  Last week’s announcement allowed Semenya to retain the gold medal; however, the sports ministry chose to keep the results of the gender test confidential.  Moreover, officials did not say whether or not Semanya would be allowed to compete as a woman in future track and field events.

What most concerns me about this story is the fact that a woman was subjected to having to prove that she was a woman.  It is disturbing to think about how much society has defined what being female is, and if someone does not fit neatly within this definition, her gender is immediately questioned.  Semenya does not look like a Barbie doll; she is South African, muscular, and athletic.  She is also really fast, winning the 800 meters race by such a wide margin last August that track and field officials did not think she could possibly be female.  Why?  Is being female so narrowly defined that women are not allowed to excel athletically beyond what makes society comfortable? Can only men be impressive athletes?  The scrutiny over Semeya’s gender was an unfortunate combination of her “non-female” appearance and extreme athleticism.  If Semenya looked like a Barbie doll, but ran just as fast, would her gender still be in question?  I’m not so sure.

I am a tall, African American woman with big feet and big hands.  Some people may not think these traits are exactly female.  But since I have never been asked to prove my gender, I guess I fall within the threshold that defines me as female.  In the IAAF’s sex-verification testing of Semenya, it took a “panel of experts” to determine that threshold; however, as I stated previously, the results were not disclosed so we don’t know what that threshold is.  I don’t think it should take a panel of experts to determine someone’s gender.  I know that I am a woman, I identify as a woman, and I am accepted as a woman; unfortunately, it hasn’t been so simple for Semenya.


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