Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the 800m race. I was beside myself not only because South Africa’s golds are the closest Zimbabwe came to medaling in track and field, but also because of the horrible example that the International Associations of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has made of her over the past few years.
After drastically improving upon her 1500m and 800m times in 2009, the IAAF was compelled to investigate her dramatic improvements due to doping suspicion: because that nature of improvement was “the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.” That August, she set that year’s record for the 800m at the World Championships, running a time of 1:55.45. Her subsequent sex/gender testing was subject to international outcry, for obvious reasons. The IAAF denied widespread allegations of unfair racial profiling and claimed they did not suspect her of cheating, but rather sought to determine whether she had a medical condition that gave her an “unfair athletic advantage.”
There are two major and overlapping/complementary systems that contribute to the scrutiny of Caster’s sex and gender: cissexism and misogynoir. Cissexism, here, refers to institutional attempts to rigidly define and regulate the boundaries of sex, and thus gender, in ways that posit being cisgender (where one’s sex assignment at birth reflects their gender identity) as “normal.” Cissexism — a “scientifically grounded” product of colonial ways of know sex and gender expression & identities — states that a “real woman” has two X allosomes (sex chromosomes), a uterus and ovaries and other “proper” genitalia, and a particular balance of testosterone and estrogen (with estrogen levels being significantly higher than testosterone levels).
Hyperandrogenism, a condition characterized by elevated androgen (a male sex hormone, such as testosterone) levels, would thus give a female athlete an “unfair athletic advantage” because of our widely held sexist presumptions that men are naturally better athletes than women. So Caster would presumably be operating at an athletic function akin to a man if her testosterone levels were “abnormally high”,” thus giving her an unfair advantage to cisgender women with “normal” levels of estrogen and testosterone. To address this “inequity,” IAAF policy previously held that women with elevated testosterone levels could undergo surgery or hormone therapy to reduce their levels to a “normal” female point (i.e. the one set by IAAF guidelines) or altogether stop competing. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was similarly banned from participating in the Commonwealth Games because of International Olympic Committee regulations. Funnily enough, male athletes are not similarly subjected to rigid testings and restrictions to their “naturally-occurring” testosterone levels.
In July 2015, after the Indian government appealed Chand’s suspension on her behalf, the Court of Arbitration for Sport issued a monumental decision to suspend the hyperandrogenism regulation for track and field sports. Professor Richard Holt, a medical doctor and endocrinologist at the University of Southampton who acted as an expert witness for Dutt, held that the IAAF regulation was “scientifically unsound” and cited the results of a recent study by Healy, Gibney, Pentecost, and Subsey (2014) as the foundation for that argument:
I am a cisgender woman. I’m presumed to have a pair of X sex chromosomes and a “normal level” of testosterone even though I’ve never had a karotype test and I’ve never been to an endocrinologist to tell me what my estrogen and androgen levels are. Most cisgender women have never been tested for either, so why do those of us who insist on denying the likes of Caster her womanhood feel so confident in asserting OURS when we’ve no concrete evidence outside of our secondary sex characteristics (i.e. our breasts and labias)? And in any event, convention is slowly but steadily moving past an XX/XY sex and gender binary and increasingly understanding sex as a spectrum. This has material consequences, for example, for intersex infants who are non-consensually gendered by their parents and doctors at birth via gential surgery. In Nature, Claire Ainsworth writes:
“When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.
These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.
“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”
Misogynoir (a term coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey to describe misogyny specifically affecting black women) plays a critical role in the scrutiny that Caster experiences because, to be crass, “she looks like a man.” But this particular commentary emerges from a long colonial history of black womanhood being denied access to womanhood in a way that revolves around their “abnormal” bodies: whether they’re like “freakishly curvy” Saartjie Baartman who was paraded around European circus sideshows as “Hottentot Venus” or “inhumanly/mannishly muscular” Serena Williams who is continually mocked and shamed for her body, the commentary — steeped in capitalist regulation of black women as commodity — has never stopped.
Enter now Lynsey Sharp, the British athlete who competed against Caster in the 800m and placed 6th. In a tearful interview, she stated that the IAAF’s reversal of the regulation for hyperandrogenic athletes made the competition “difficult” as though the IAAF’s policy change caused her to lose to FOUR other runners excluding Caster. But her tears, again, speak to the ways in which womanhood revolves squarely around cisgender [heterosexual] white woman, and that any deviation from normativities speaks to the flawed nature of a woman in. Of question rather than the violence of whiteness’ gender norms and impossibility of the attainment of said norms for those of us never intended to benefit from existing dominant structures.
As a queer black African woman, I’m incredibly proud of Caster’s achievements. And I can only hope that this change in IAAF policy opens up doors to further challenge our restrictive and harmful modes of defining sex and gender.