There recently was a radio story about middle distance runner Caster Semenya of South Africa. Not by coincidence, Semenya carried her country’s flag during the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games. That’s because three years ago, when she was 18, Semenya was embroiled in a gender-test controversy that jeopardized her career and forced her to sit out of competition for nearly a year. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) said it was "obliged to investigate" after she made significant improvements in her racing times that typically arouse suspicion of drug use. But the IAAF also forced Semenya to undergo a gender test.
What must it have been like for Semenya? She was subjected to the indignity and humiliation of dropping her drawers on the international sports stage for the whole world to see. The IAAF subsequently conveyed its regret at the way the situation was handled but the emotional and perhaps psychological damage had been done. The really sad part is it was reported that the IAAF conducted the gender test, in large part, due to Semenya’s competitors complaining how much she looked like a man.
This gender profiling reminds me of all the unfortunate ways in which we, as a society, subject each other to unreasonable standards. Sports aside, we do it in the name of what seems to be our struggle to define what’s ‘normal.’ Yes, there are averages: height, weight, etc. Yet on closer examination, there is no normal – at least not in the way most people tend to define it. People typically define a normal individual as someone who looks like them, talks like them, dresses like them, and perhaps most important, thinks like them. But consider: do you fit into society’s standards for normalcy in every way?
To be ‘different’ in our society – by choice (style of clothes), happenstance (job loss) or birth (skin color) – runs the risk of being subjected to prejudice, unconsciously at best. At worse, being different has been used in ways that systematically promote discrimination. This discrimination is often used when a majority of people do not understand and fear those who are different. It is also often employed when there are opportunities for financial gain.
History repeatedly shows how science has often been used to justify a wide range of injustices done to groups of ‘different’ people. So-called experts have again and again been called on to ‘prove’ who or what a person is. For instance, ‘science’ was used to prove Africans were not human when America participated in the institution of slavery.
|Male or female - which is which? Hint: it's the same person|
As it turned out, tests showed Semenya’s body naturally produces higher levels of the naturally occurring hormone testosterone than many females. Experts are unclear whether higher levels of male hormone in females result in a significant performance advantage. However, it was confirmed that elevated levels does not make them male.
Some critics contend that unusually high levels of natural testosterone is akin to having an oversized heart like biker Lance Armstrong, or double-jointed ankles like swimmer Michael Phelps. It’s genetic, biological, and it may or may not confer an advantage. What’s more, there is little conversation about male athletes who are taller, have bigger hands, better vision – or have unusually high levels of naturally occurring testosterone in their bodies.
It all highlights a cruel injustice: the policy—and the testing, treatment, and humiliation that can come with it—only applies to female athletes. Men who excel at, say, ice dancing or synchronized swimming, where success has more to do with grace and rhythm than brute strength or speed, simply aren’t questioned in the same way women are. Why is that?