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Friday, August 21, 2009

More-than-much fine gold


Note: There is another article in this morning's NY Times about Caster Semenya, the 18 year old South African woman whose Olympic Gold Medal for the 800 meter Track and Field event is being challenged, based upon questions of her gender.

This morning on the House of Bishops / Deputies (HOBD) listserve, I posted a link to the story along with these comments.


Caster Semenya is an 18 year old South African woman who won the Olympic gold medal for the 800 meter Track and Field event this week in Berlin. However, her gold medal is being challenged some of her team mates because of her speed - and because she doesn't "look" like a woman.

“Just look at her,” said Mariya Savinova of Russia, who finished fifth. Elisa Cusma of Italy, who was sixth, told Italian journalists: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

We can get philosophical and ask, "What does it mean to be a man or a woman?" but the issue is far more complicated than that.

As a woman, I find the comments made by the athletes from Italy and Russia deeply insulting. If you check out the story in the NY Times and look at the picture of the three winners, Caster does not look as traditionally-defined 'feminine' as the other two women on the stand.

But to say that an 'unfeminine looking woman' who is muscular and strong enough to 'run like a man' is someone ("these kind of people") who "should not run with us" displays an alarming level of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry, based on the conviction that women are, in fact "the weaker sex."

Some South Africans and others have suggested that there might be an anti-African bias at work. “The question I ask is if this were a European person, would these questions be raised?” said Ruben Ramolefi, a track athlete for South Africa. “It seems there’s hypocrisy behind it.”

The NY Times article reports:
Complicated cases are common. For example, a disorder known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia gives women excess testosterone from a source other than the testes — the adrenal glands. In mild cases, genitals may appear normal and often no one suspects the problem. Women with the disorder are allowed to compete as females.

The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, often are hermaphrodites but they do not always have obvious male genitalia, said Dr. Maria New, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. They are genetically female yet have both testes and ovaries.

To spot the condition, doctors sometimes must do a laparoscopic exam, remove tissue from the gonads, and biopsy it, New said.

Then there is a list of rare genetic disorders that can confuse sexual identity. Some genetic males, for example, have mutations in a gene needed to form testes. Although they look like women, genetically they are men, with an X chromosome and a Y chromosome.

I bring this article to the attention of this list because of our conversations in Anaheim about Transgender issues - specifically, the resolution to include "gender identity and expression" in our anti-discrimination canons.

As I recall, the resolution passed the HOD but was seriously altered by the HOB. All of the many years of careful discussion about each of the classifications of people against whom the canons prohibit the church to discriminate were wiped away with the well-intended by ill-advised word "all".

The Senior House wisely - if not without difficulty - defeated the resolution which had been amended by the HOB. The difficulty we had was due to the fact that we now must wait another three years before we are able to provide canonical assurance to our Trans sisters and brothers of protection against discrimination in the church.

The case of Caster Semenya, dear members of the Junior house , is why "all" does not necessarily mean "all".

At the end of the day, I trust Caster Semenya will be allowed to keep her Gold Medal, but what she has really won is the more-than-much-fine-gold respect, admiration and appreciation of Trans groups and women around the world for helping us all take another look at the strength and beauty of women- and men - that is not defined by cultural assumptions, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance.

Dr. Alice Dreggor, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University is quoted as having said:
“But at the end of the day, they (the IAAF) are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision,” Dreger said.

“And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ”

I feel a psalm coming on, singing the praises of the Holy Messiness of God's Creation, which praise the One who created the Holy Mess.

Oh wait! I think it's already been written: Canticle 12 (BCP 88) "A Song of Creation" Benedicite, omnia opera Domini (Song of the Three Young Men, 35-65)

7 comments:

David |Dah • veed| said...

I read a news article yesterday that included statements from her parents and her grandmother. All her life she has been their daughter and granddaughter.

But she is often mistaken for a boy and she played football on the boy's team. In fact one of her teachers said that for years he was not aware that she was a girl because she always wore pants and played with the boys, until he instructed the kids to divide into a boy's and a girl's team and he took notice that she obediently lined up with the other girls!

What is pathetic is the moaning and bitching of folks who took 5th and 6th places. They did not have a chance of winning anyway. This is a diversion tactic on their part to throw attention away from themselves because of their shame of not being good enough. "We would have been 5th & 4th if not for allowing this freak to compete against us!"

There is one thing that concerns me though. Caster is from a small village in a developing nation where black folks have just been coming into their own. Yes, folks mistook her for a boy, often. But at the end of the day she, herself, her family and her village knew that she was a girl. There has been no attempt at deceit. But what if these extensive medical exams invade her world of the boyish athletic girl and expose an unknown anomaly? So what if her body produces a bit more testosterone? What if she were an XXY, or some such cellular difference. What if they find side-by-side ovaries and testicles? Do they have a right to come along and turn her world upside down because a couple crybaby 5th & 6th place wannabes cannot make it another way?!?!

IT said...

Dahveed, I think this is a more complicated issue. Men and women do not compete together because of the difference in size and overall strength.

Since sport is based on a bright line binary of male and female, there must be a definition of where to draw the line. As Elizabeth's quote makes clear, our human effort to draw bright distinctions, be it gender, sexuality, or black and white, is at odds with the reality of the continuous gradient of human variation.

There is not an easy solution. A woman producing testosterone, like a woman injecting testosterone, has a substantial physical advantage over women who do not. Testosterone was given to the East German women swimmers 30 years ago for a reason. That's just one example. On this and other issues affecting those "in the middle" re. sports, I don't know how the line should be drawn.

But I do agree that the comments from the other runners are sick and degrading.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

This Mariya Savinova should guard her tounge. And Italy? I say Berlusconi...

I remember the Soviet block ball throwing athletes I met wile working in Hotels some 30 years ago. Fully packed with hormones for all to see...

(the word is "shescope" ;=)

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

It appears that South Africa's coach is not South African but an ex DDR coach much implicated in the former regime's injecting hormones into women athleets to gain gold medals for Communism and the Fatherland...

A former Ms Something, now Mr Something, sued him in the courts some years back...

It is also reported that Ms Semenya has very elevated Testosterone levels...

It this is true several scenarios are possible, some of them rendered quite horrible by the publicity in this case.

IT said...

What Göran said. News here.

But regardless of whether this was induced or natural, it points out the difficulty of bright lines and where to draw them. Yet draw them we must, at least for sport.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, did you see this on NPR - calling for an end to gender testing?

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112178722

JCF said...

But IT, ***all*** top-level athletes are freakish in some way (I heard so much a year ago how Michael Phelps long arms, short legs, and {some other morphological quality I can't remember now} made him IDEALLY fast in the water!).

For argument's sake, say that Caster Semenya's body DOES produce testosterone (significantly above the average small amounts women's bodies produce anyway): how is that any different that Michael Phelps' unique gifts? Yes, it's an "unfair advantage" . . . but isn't that sort of the point? There's not a gold medalist ANYWHERE who didn't win the genetic lottery over you or me.

Either we give out medals to all competitors (like they do in Little League, or the girls' softball teams I played on: I got "Most Improved" one time---what an honor! {snort})...

...OR we let those few (for example) XXYs or CAH females---who ALSO have unique athletic gifts (most intersex people DON'T!)---use whatever God gave 'em, for as long as they can. Even though Caster is only 18 now, she, too, will grow over-the-hill someday. She can't dominate her sport forever and then, like as not, it'll be a "Plain Ol' XX" who'll be the best.

As for those Plain Ol' XXs now (like the Russian and Italian competitors), it must seem terribly unfair. Life's like that.

[Conversely, the IOC could legislate "maximum allowable testosterone" for female athletes (and mandate counter-actives for too much) . . . but then why not do that for male athletes, too? And where would it stop? Ussain Bolt must wear ankle weights, to compensate for his stride-length advantage?!]