Monday, August 24, 2009

On Male and Female, Again

Perhaps you've read about about South African runner Caster Semenya. To summarize, Semenya is an 18-year-old woman who recently won a gold medal in a race at the World Championships in Berlin. Almost immediately after she won, other contestants began questioning her biological sex, some of them even outright calling her "a man."


"The International Assn. of Athletic Federations has asked the 5-foot-7, 140-pound athlete to undergo a battery of complex gender tests, and it could take months to get the results. If found to be male, Semenya could be disqualified from competing and stripped of her medals."

First and foremost, I find this story to be sad. As I looked at the picture of her beautiful smiling face as she proudly held up her medal, I immediately wondered how much of the questioning was due to (a) her gender non-conformity (she appears "masculine")(b) her race (she is black), and (c) simple jealousy and sore-loser-itis on the part of her competitors. As South Africa's Youth Communist (EEEEK, THE COMMIES!11!!) League has said:

"It feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty.

It is this culture which has forced many African women to starve themselves with the objective of reaching the model ramps of Paris and Milan to become the face of this or that product or magazine."

Now, she could very well have some sort of intersex, chromosomal, or hormonal condition that renders her biological sex ambiguous. Yet, given the pervasive expectations that exist for men and women to conform to certain ideals of beauty, looks, and appearance and the fact that white people are often considered the Default Human, it seems almost certain that had Semenya been a white runner sporting a blond ponytail, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Even though an elite white female runner sporting a blond ponytail could just as likely have a biological anomaly or intersex condition as Semenya.

Regardless of the outcome, I think that instances such as these can be helpful in reminding us all that sex/gender are much more complicated than most people think. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find an acknowledgment of that fact in an LA Times article about the incident. It begins:

"Despite what one might think, it is not always easy to tell who is male and who is female."

The article then goes on to discuss genetic, chromosomal, and hormonal conditions that can lead to instances where chromosomes, appearance, and hormones do not "match up."

I have written about this before:

"A myriad of hormonal, anatomical, and chromosomal conditions exist that shed light on the inaccuracy and insufficiency of the sex binary. I know that many people believe that XY Anatomical Males constitute the Real Male, XX Anatomical Females constitute the Real Female, and those who do not fall neatly into one of these two categories are errors. Yet, aside from the rudeness of suggesting that some people are mistakes, in reality, I think it is worth exploring whether it's even accurate to say that these Others are flawed males and flawed females. What if, instead, it is more accurate to say that all people exist along a gradation of sex and gender, and that some people are more 'gray' than others? What if, biological sex and gender are often, but not always, concordant?"

That is all a long way of saying that it's not accurate to think of humanity as dual. We aren't disparate beings who fit into either a Male box or Female one. While it may please our categorizing minds to conceptualize humanity in such a way, nature is messier than that. Working in combination with our appearances, chromosomes, hormones, anatomy, brains, and physiology we all exist somewhere on a gradation of sex.

If I may use an analogy here, sex in humans is sort of like a bag of Skittles (tm). Some people will insist that we are all either yellow ones or red ones. (Maybe because they think those are the tastiest, who knows). And, despite the observable reality that blue, green, orange, and purple ones also exist, we are still all placed in categories of "red" or "yellow" anyway.

I'm not suggesting we should formally acknowledge a "third" sex. Rather, I'm saying we should take the much more radical step of questioning all "self-evident truths" regarding sex and gender.

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