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To start with, the term hermaphrodite is considered to be an outdated and unhelpful term that is offensive to many intersex people – see this FAQ page on the OII Australia website for more information.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.