Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Limits of Gender

Caster Semenya, an 18-year old runner from South Africa, recently took gold in the 800m race of the world championships in Germany. But her performance and medal are being disputed by some due to a debate over her gender, and the whole issue brings to light the problems with applying dichotomous gender categories in some cases.

Cleared of drug use, other athletes, sport commentators, and teams have challenged Semenya's running in a women's competition. Though the testing has yet to be done, it is possible that the running star could have a genetic mutation -- for example, a Y chromosome like men have -- which allows her to perform better despite having female genitals. Semenya could also have greater levels of testosterone due to a hyper-active adrenal gland, which could allow her to run faster.

This event brings two questions to light. First, how should biological gender (sex) be defined for athletic competitions? Second, what should be done about the Semenya's particular case?

As for sex, a line must be drawn somewhere. Either female genitalia or reproductive organs seems like a reasonable criteria. However, it is not acceptable to rule out any person with high naturally-occurring levels of testosterone, in the same way that we should not disqualify Michael Phelps for having abnormally short legs and a long torso, or Shaquille O'Neal for towering 7'1" above the ground and carrying large amounts of muscle mass. Indeed, most record-breakers or top-level athletes are born with abilities or traits which 99.9% of humans do not possess.

In fact, this concept could even be extended beyond athletics: the leading physicists are born able to understand extremely complex concepts and formulas, the best singers are born with the ability to hit otherwise-unthinkable notes, the most influential politicians were born to connect with people, etc.

So, it would be either misunderstanding or outright jealously that would drive officials to disqualify athletes for their inherent capabilities.

Second, Semenya's case: the answer is technically uncertain right now because, as mentioned, the testing must be done. However, I think we can assume that she has female genitalia, given how far she's made it without anyone pointing out this obvious problem for a woman athlete. So what could the testing reveal that would justify revoking her medal? It is difficult for me to imagine a strong case against letting Semenya celebrate her hard work and ability through a gold medal -- and probably more in the future.

In this case, we must embrace individuality, not punish it.