Q: Caster Semenya, the real “Middlesex”? A: No.

February 27, 2010

News Blaze has published an op-ed piece called Caster Semenya, The Real Middlesex? which disappointingly fails to offer the ‘compare and contrast’ overview that the title might suggest. Instead, it’s simply an extended review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex with just one passing reference to Caster Semenya:

The recent media maelstrom over South African runner, Caster Semenya is a true life example of a person who was raised as female but biologically was a hermaphrodite, having both male and female sexual organs.

I have to say I think that is a very shaky foundation on which to build an essay – which perhaps explains why the writer, Moira Cue, apparently gave up after that one sentence to focus on summarising the plot of the book instead. Leaving aside the glaringly obvious – that Caster Semenya is a real person and Calliope ‘Cal’ Stephanides from Middlesex isn’t – the last part of the quoted sentence would also benefit from more informed content.

To start with, the term hermaphrodite is considered to be an outdated and unhelpful term that is offensive to many intersex people – see this FAQ page on the OII Australia website for more information. Additionally, the preferred term intersex refers to a range of physical differences in sex which, while it includes ambiguous genitalia, is not limited to that specific variation alone. Intersex can and does involve chromosomal, hormonal, gonadal and other differences; the idea that all intersex people have “both male and female sexual organs” is simply inaccurate.

The lack of any insightful analysis of the perceived similarities – and differences – between Caster Semenya and Cal Stephanides doesn’t end there. Whilst Cal is described in Middlesex as a “5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodite”, or a “male pseudohermaphrodite”; as far as I know, Caster Semenya’s “gender test” results haven’t been – and won’t be – made public. We simply don’t know if she has an intersex variation or not. (See the OII website for a description of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency)

The one possible commonality between the stories of Caster Semenya (if she’s intersex) and Cal Stephanides which may have been worth discussion was unfortunately completely overlooked in Moira Cue’s piece. Namely, that the borders between sex and gender are not the clearly-defined binary constructs which mainstream hetero-normative society prizes so highly, even above the human rights of intersex people themselves.

Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in the way that so many intersex people are subject to enforced normalisation at the hands of the medical profession for no reason other than to be made to conform to those binaries; to uphold and perpetuate a structurally flawed system which is surely long overdue for a complete reevaluation and reconstruction so that the numerous variations of sex and gender are valued for being manifestations of the almost infinite diversity of humankind, and accepted and celebrated as such by all of us.

13 Responses to “Q: Caster Semenya, the real “Middlesex”? A: No.”

  1. Moira Cue Says:

    Caster Semenya and the fictional character, Cal, share one thing in common: They don’t fit a dichotomous definition of gender…I agree with you completely that “enforced normalization” is not the way to treat people who are, like all of us, manifestations of diversity. Any one who reads “Middlesex” will likely come to the same conclusion.

    The focus of the article was the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Middlesex, a part of a series of reviews of every Pulitzer winning work of fiction in history. The title, which was chosen by a syndicated editor, does imply more of a comparative theme, when really the theme of the essay was Middlesex. The title was probably chosen to attract readers, and that’s how I would expect an editor to think. I made it clear that Caster Semenya and Cal had different conditions; and I will certainly explore the use of “intersex” as a descriptor.

    However, you should know Caster Semenya failed her gender test and has been declared a hermaphrodite by most of the major world media. See: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2009/09/10/2009-09-10_caster_semenya_.html

    Another competitive runner who failed a gender test, Santhi Soundarajan, was stripped of her medal and attempted suicide. http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/sport/archives/2009/06/11/2003445882

    It seems a real shame to throw these talented amazing runners out of the sport because they don’t fit into one or the other nice little category. They are real people, who have real feelings, who have trained just as hard as any body else.

    My heart goes out to both Caster, Santhi, and any one else who has been hurt or mistreated due to intersex, transgender, and/or gay, lesbian, or bisexual status.

  2. Helen G Says:

    Moira:

    Thank you for your comments – I appreciate you taking the time to write; I was particularly interested in the insight into the degree of control exercised by a syndicated editor. That must be a very frustrating thing for you as a writer.

    I do have a few reservations about a couple of the points you raise and hope you don’t mind me ‘thinking out loud’ here by way of a reply.

    However, you should know Caster Semenya failed her gender test and has been declared a hermaphrodite by most of the major world media. See: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2009/09/10/2009-09-10_caster_semenya_.html

    First, I’m concerned that you frame a gender test as something to be passed or failed. To do so, in my opinion, serves only to reinforce the privileging of binary gendered normativity which has been, and continues to be, a direct cause of the medical, legal, cultural and social pathologisation and stigmatisation of too many intersex people for far too long.

    Second, although in your previous sentence you say you will certainly explore the use of “intersex” as a descriptor you immediately use again the pejorative term hermaphrodite. I’d be grateful if you’d refrain from using it again in any future comments that you may choose to make here. You may find this quote helpful in your explorations – it’s from this post on the Intersex Roadshow website:

    Most intersex people who are politically aware hate being called hermaphrodites because of the baggage the term carries. It evokes greek mythology, and we’re not creatures of myth. It is used a lot by fetishists, who get off on the idea of having sex with a body that has breasts and a penis, and we’re not volunteering to be sex objects for every kinkster out there.

    Third, the New York Daily News article you refer to does not seem to provide any direct link to any definitive IAAF statement on the outcome of the tests and I’d be grateful if you’d provide details of the authorative source on which most of the major world media have based their stories. Try as I might, I can’t find an official IAAF statement online anywhere, but perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places. For what it’s worth, this article in the New York Times quotes South Africa’s sports ministry as saying that “there will be no public announcement of what the panel of scientists has found” and this piece in the Daily Telegraph refers to “leaked reports”. On that basis, it’s hard to see how any newspaper report can state categorically that Caster Semenya has an intersex variation. As I said in my post, we simply don’t know.

    Another competitive runner who failed a gender test, Santhi Soundarajan, was stripped of her medal and attempted suicide. http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/sport/archives/2009/06/11/2003445882

    I’m not entirely sure of the relevance of this. Was this gender test also to decide if the competitor was intersex, and was it carried out by the IAAF, do you know?

    Finally, I’d just like to unpick your closing sentence:

    My heart goes out to both Caster, Santhi, and any one else who has been hurt or mistreated due to intersex, transgender, and/or gay, lesbian, or bisexual status.

    Introducing trans, lesbian, gay and bi to a discussion about intersex people can be confusing, at best. That’s not to say that some trans people aren’t intersex, or that some intersex people aren’t gay, lesbian or bi, and so on – but as the OII says in its Ten Misconceptions about Intersexuality:

    8. The intersex movement is an identity movement like other GLBT movements. (False)

    No. The International Intersex Organisation campaigns for full Human Rights for all people born with intersex conditions and one of those rights should be the right to self-identify. The intersex movement should include us all whether we identify as a man, woman or simply intersex.

    Which, I think brings us to the real point: I don’t think anyone can deny that Caster Semenya has been subjected to a global invasion of her privacy by the mass media, the trauma this must have caused is unimaginable and the whole mistreatment of her is a breach of her fundamental human rights – and for what reason? To sell a few more newspapers? The media, as well as the IAAF, should be ashamed of themselves; their actions diminish and demean all of us, and are entirely unforgivable when we consider the huge personal cost to Caster Semenya.

  3. westwood Says:

    A true and excellent point. Sounds like the reviewer wasted their own time.

    It’s a pity that much of the world is too backwards to understand that true, polar binaries do not exist the biological world.

  4. Beth Harrison Says:

    Thank you, Helen! Your points are just so well argued. I loved reading your article, and I completely agree with your analysis.

  5. K Rienke Says:

    I don’t like your words – so I will ignore your facts. That’s what is being said here – to Moria Cue. Call it what you will ( or call it nothing if it is not your business) but sports have rules and – yes – tests once can ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. I don’t know if Caster Semenya is ‘intersex’ ( the term you prefer) or ‘hermaphrodite’ ( a historic term you seem to find offensive for whatever reason – but one with a different meaning than the first) or simply a biological make with developmental differences which lead to confusion by his/her parents and a brief miscatagoration by the sports authorities. Further – I don’t really find it all that interesting. What I do find interesting is your response, which seems to be a combination of “la-la-la-la I can’t hear you” and (as mentioned above) a sense of personal superiority to anything as distateful as physical facts.
    There may be many interesting points of discussion in the Semenya story – but none that can happen on a website with such an attitude.
    So sorry Moria wasted her time here – as did I.

  6. Helen G Says:

    K Rienke:

    I’m sorry you wasted everybody’s time here, too.

    It won’t happen again.

  7. shuu Says:

    What struck me as wrong about the comparison is that I read Middlesex. In it, the main character was thought of as a girl for hir early life, but the book seemed to show that zie was actually gendered male, and that zie was relieved to realize the difference. If Semenya, on the other hand, has decided that she’s really a man at heart, she hasn’t let it be known to the media. It’s as though the article’s author is using the comparison to take away a part of Semenya’s identity by saying she, like the novel’s character, is not a woman in sex or gender. Maybe I’m over-reaching, but it was my first thought…

  8. Helen G Says:

    shuu:

    Interesting thought, thanks for commenting.

    My view was (is) that both cases demonstrate how the boundaries of the sex and gender binary constructs are policed, to the extent of enforcing surgery for no reason other than making people comply with prevailing social/cultural attitudes.

    This surgery is often carried out when there’s no immediate threat to life – it’s exactly what the IOC is now proposing to do as well – and I cannot see how it’s anything other than a breach of the human rights of intersex people.

  9. Ryan Says:

    The similarities start and end with the first letter of their names.

  10. Moira Cue Says:

    Thank you Helen, and the rest of you for your collective input. As a final note on this topic, I’ve made some revisions to the article, in its original site of publication, which is linked here.

    http://www.thehollywoodsentinel.com/Middlesex2310

  11. Helen G Says:

    Moira:

    Thank you for doing this.

    Helen

  12. Sarah Says:

    However, you should know Caster Semenya failed her gender test and has been declared a hermaphrodite by most of the major world media. See: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2009/09/10/2009-09-10_caster_semenya_.html

    Does anyone else find it disturbing that “most of the major world news media” is the determiner of gender? I really hope that the wackos at Fox don’t get pissed at me someday and decide I am a boy.

    I’d be interested to know when the medical community decides to step up and be the authority on gender issues, instead of the media.

  13. Helen G Says:

    Sarah:

    Oh yes, defintely. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, in the case of Caster Semenya, the media have caused immense distress and trauma to her, and they certainly don’t seem to be interested in taking their share of the responsibility for that.

    However, the media circus would have had nothing to latch on to if the IAAF and its “medical experts” hadn’t decided to impose a “gender test” on Ms Semenya. That, to my mind, was the first bad decision; the media were merely next in line to try and take the moral high ground at the expense of an individual’s human rights.

    As regards the medical profession positioning itself as the authority on gender, I think it already did, a long time ago – in the late 19th century it decided that gonads would be the single signifier which determined a person’s sex: males had testes and females had ovaries. As clinical technology developed, it became apparent that that definition didn’t work – so a new one was introduced: anyone with a penis was male and anyone with a vulva was female. That, too, has been shown to be wrong and yet these definitions persist.

    I know I’ve said this before, so excuse the repetition, but the fundamental issue is the social/cultural pressure on each and every one of us to conform to binary “norms” of sex and gender which are used as big sticks with which to beat anyone who falls outside of those narrow and inaccurate categories. Fixing that problem, though, requires a paradigm shift in attitudes of mainstream society and until/unless that happens, then I fear these injustices, these breaches of human rights, will continue unchecked and uncontrolled.


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