Athlete to be subjected to a “gender verification test”

August 20, 2009

South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the final of the Women's 800m during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)Proof – not that it should be needed – that some cis people are so fixated on upholding the gender binary that they will mercilessly attack anyone they believe contravenes their blinkered, prejudiced and untenable worldview.

The world of athletics was hit by controversy tonight after a female South African athlete who won the 800m final at the world championships was asked to take a gender verification test to prove she is a woman.


Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old who had never competed outside of Africa, before this week aroused suspicions when she posted the fastest 800m time in the world this year, winning gold at the African junior championships.

Notice the reversal of the usual legal precept of “innocent until proven guilty” – the burden is on her to prove her “innocence”, and not on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to prove her “guilt”. It’s hard not to think that the IAAF is using these tests as a tool to police gender boundaries, even though Ms Semenya has the full support of her team manager:

Molatelo Malehopo, the general manager of Athletics South Africa, reacted angrily to the rumours. “She is a female,” said Malehopo. “We are completely sure about that and we wouldn’t have entered her into the female competition if we had any doubts. We have not been absent-minded, we are very sure of her gender.”

So what exactly has Ms Semanya done wrong that justifies this deeply offensive intrusion, apart from being a hugely successful competitor, of course. Funny, I always thought the point of sports was, well, competing. But surely posting the fastest 800m time in the world isn’t any reason to have “aroused suspicions” in the IAAF?

Semanya, from Polokwane, Limpopo province, possesses an unusually developed muscular frame and a deep voice and has clocked times which belie her youth […]

Muscular? A fast runner? She’s an athlete, for fuck’s sake. Deep voice? Youth? Oh please. Would you like some misogyny and sexism with that ageism, Miss? Seriously, if these are the grounds for “suspicion”, then the IAAF is run by bigger, more prejudiced fools than I’d have ever imagined. I begin to wonder if the IAAF members need their grasp of reality testing.

It’s interesting how Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, contradicts himself within the space of two sentences:

This is a medical condition. It is nothing that she has done.

How does he know it’s a medical condition when, as far as we know, the tests haven’t even been completed yet? And if it’s nothing that Ms Semenya has done, then why insist on these ludicrous tests, with all the attendant humiliation that’s being heaped upon her?

I’m also interested to know what exactly is involved in this gender verification test.

A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, have started the testing procedure but it is uncertain when the results will be known.

The logic defeats me. We have what cis people usually see as a very simple binary distinction, invariably based on a person’s genital configuration. The reference to gynaecological testing not only suggests that the IAAF see it that way too, but also implies that they think she probably is female (otherwise, why not also have a urologist present?)

And the inclusion of the rest of the circus – psychologists? really? – would not be out of place in the medical inquisition that we know as transitioning. And there’s the rub. Because this whole situation bears a striking resemblance to this transphobic trope that Queen Emily deconstructed so eloquently over at Questioning Transphobia.

One final thought, as the bigots at the IAAF pursue their demonstration of support for the assertion that “biology is destiny”: I wonder what the IAAF will do if these test results show that Ms Semanya has one of the many variations that may place her under the catch-all term of intersex?


Sourced mostly via The Guardian (link here), but also found at BBC Sport (link here) and many others.


ETA: Thanks to Liesl Björn Theron, Director of Gender DynamiX, for forwarding this media statement made jointly by Gender DynamiX and the Saartjie Baartman Centre:

Gender DynamiX logoMedia witch hunt on Semenya will lead to hate crimes

This week South African media, in particular radio DJ’s and print media have been having a shameless orgy with the gender dispute of our gold medalist heroin competing in Berlin.

Last year we lost a South African sport star to a hate crime because she transgressed gender boundaries. Banyana soccer star Eudy Simelane was murdered in a township because she challenged expected gender stereotypes.

Is our media putting a South African hero’s life in danger on her return, gold medal in hand?

Instead of being proud of our champion the South African media and public is on a witch-hunt trying to define Semenya’s sex. DJ’s on radio are dissecting Semenya’s person to a point of reducing her accomplishments to her genitals.

Says Gender DynamiX Director: “In our work we are reminded of how (wo)men’s bodies are so easily ridiculed and made into a spectacle because of gender notions”. Gender DynamiX focuses its work in the field of transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming people.

Civil society organisations, are fighting battles against homophobia and transphobia in South Africa. With their work the killing of black lesbians in acts called “curative rape” has come to light. Gender DynamiX maintains that these hate crimes are not only rooted in sexual orientation but also in gender identity.

Ilse Ahrends, Partnership coordinator at the Saartjie Baartman Centre in Cape Town asks: “Alas where was the media when National Banyana-Banyana soccer player, Eudy Simelane was murdered because of her sexual orientation?”

Gender non-conformity does not always equal gay or lesbian. It merely refers to a person physical appearance that does not conform to society’s expectations. In general people are outraged and confused by gender ambiguity.

As in the case of Castor Simenya, when confronted by people who challenge our perceptions of masculinity or femininity, we react with anger and fear. This is the daily reality for many South Africans.

Gender DynamiX board member Simone Heradien says: “We are appalled by public and media mechanisms that spur hate speech of this nature. We should not forget the part of radio in the genocide in Rwanda.”


10 Responses to “Athlete to be subjected to a “gender verification test””

  1. queenemily Says:

    I saw this on the news last night and was just bloody appalled. They ran with the leader “a gender bender at the world athletics championships.”

    Fuckheads, all of them.

  2. sharav Says:

    “If there’s a problem and it turns out that there’s been a fraud, that someone has changed sex,…”

    changing sex is a fraud?

  3. Steph Says:

    Excellent post Helen, ugh, the misogyny, transphobia, racism and whatever else that the meejda have trotted out on this one has just been shocking.

    Greer has been dressing up her usual transphobia towards trans women too here:

  4. Chris Says:

    I feel bad for her because she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of. Besides, why are they questioning her gender now after she won. If there was a problem, they should have checked her out discreetly before the race instead of embarrassing her after she won.

  5. Helen G Says:

    Chris: If there’s any “checking out” to be done (by whom? on whose say-so?) and any legitimate reason to do so, then it should apply to all competitors before they even set foot on a track.

    But I think also that another part of the equation is society’s fixation on the idea that there is only a gender binary, that a person can be only male or only female. And it’s an absurd presumption because when you examine it, there is no such thing as only male or only female. We all have characteristics of each, to some extent. I don’t believe there is any such thing as “100% male” or “100% female” and this whole fiasco just highlights the foolishness of applying a fictitious standard to real people with real lives.

    And don’t even start me on the mistreatment that trans and intersex and gender variant people suffer each and every single day as a result of this clumsy, violent policing of wholly constructed borders.

  6. […] questioned because she doesn’t conform to traditional western standards of femininity.  Bird of Paradox has […]

  7. James Says:

    I agree with Chris, if there every was a problem, it should have been checked out before she had won.
    But I think most of you are going WAAAAY out of context. You throw in insults and it seems the whole picture isn’t in your view.
    in the least, she might be on steroids.
    The media did overdo it, but when doesn’t it?

  8. James Says:

    Tests have revealed Caster Semenya’s testosterone level to be three times higher than those normally expected in a female sample, BBC Sport understands.

    Analysis prior to the World Athletics Championships coupled with her rapid improvement prompted calls for a gender test from the sport’s governing body.

    News of the test was made public just hours before the 18-year-old South African won 800m gold in Berlin….
    Only hours before the race, it leaked out that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had demanded Semenya take a gender test amid fears she should not be allowed to run as a woman.

    It has since emerged that news of the test only became public knowledge because a fax was sent to the wrong person….
    Testosterone levels can vary widely, which makes it hard to detect possible infractions.

    When analysis shows an athlete to have a raised level, they are monitored at regular intervals over a set period to establish what their underlying levels would be.

  9. Helen G Says:

    James: …”most of you”…
    Most of whom? I’m the only blogger here at BoP.

    …”You throw in insults”…
    Please can you be a little more specific as to what you found insulting?

    …”the whole picture isn’t in your view”….
    The whole picture wasn’t in anybody’s view, and that’s one of the problems here. The way the IAAf handled it left the whole thing wide open to much public speculation about Ms Semenya’s personal/medical details. It seems to me that if the IAAF had been a little more transparent, perhaps a lot of the public outcry at Ms Semenya’s treatment would have been avoided.

    “in the least, she might be on steroids.”
    Speculation. We don’t know.

  10. Helen G Says:

    James: …”testosterone level to be three times higher than those normally expected in a female sample”…
    “Normally”? Who defines “normal”?

    “Testosterone levels can vary widely, which makes it hard to detect possible infractions.”

    So, are levels three times higher than expected “an infraction”? Says who and on what basis?

    james, I don’t really understand the point you’re trying to make. Please do feel free to elucidate.

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