Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Thursday, August 20, 2009

" . . . nature is a slob."

This is one story to watch as it unfolds.

Caster Semenya, a muscular 18-year-old from South Africa competing in her first senior championship, is undergoing sex-determination testing to confirm her eligibility to race as a woman in Olympic Track and Field.

She has just won the Olympic 800 meter race but now her gender is being questioned. Pierre Weiss, general secretary of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), the sport’s governing body, stressed that the testing had been initiated because of “ambiguity, not because we believe she is cheating.”

Semenya broke free of her much more experienced competitors on the final lap and won by the huge margin of more than two seconds, finishing in 1 minute 55.45 seconds. (That was still more than two seconds slower than the world record.)

She won fair and square, but some of the finalists do not agree.
“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.
And therein lies the rub.

Is gender in the eye of the beholder or the microscope?

Or is gender identity something far more personal?
“It turns out genes, hormones and genitals are pretty complicated,” Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview. “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. Sports require that we do, but biology doesn’t care. Biology does not fit neatly into simple categories, so they do these tests. And part of the reason I’ve criticized the tests is that a lot of times, the officials don’t say specifically how they’re testing and why they’re using that test. It should be subject to scientific review. . . . ”

. . . .Weiss said that the two-pronged investigation was being conducted in South Africa and in Berlin in hospitals that specialize in sex-testing issues. He said that Dr. Harold Adams, a South African on the I.A.A.F. medical commission, was helping to coordinate the work in South Africa.

(IAFF Spokesman Nick) Davies emphasized that the testing is extensive, beginning with a visual evaluation by a physician. “There is chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans,” he said. “It’s very, very comprehensive.”

Dreger, the Northwestern professor, said the doctors could examine genes, gonads, genitalia, hormone levels and medical history.

Well, I suppose that's better than simply having to suffer the indignity of being watched while you pee in the toilet - which is exactly one of the indignities Olympic athletes had to endure, I'm told, before more specific testing became available.

The official medical term for that is "visual examination," which will be - if it has not already - part of the "extensive, comprehensive testing" which will include "chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans."

So, what happens if the tests 'prove' that Ms. Semenya is a transgender person?

The Olympic races have always only had two categories: Male and Female. Will a third category be created to accommodate Trans people?

The Olympic Committee is not saying. Yet.

Right now, organized "scientific" confusion seems to be the only communication coming from the IAAF.

That's what happens when people don't fit in nice, neat little boxes.

Any of this beginning to sound even vaguely familiar?

General Convention 2009 in Anaheim came "this close" to adding gender identity and expression to the Canons which list the categories of people against whom we may not - must not - discriminate.

The resolution died in the House of Bishops because some of the esteemed theologians in the Junior House of Bishops simply could not get their pointy little mitered heads around the concept of a transgender person.

We will pick up the discussion in three years. You can bet that organizations like TrasEpiscopal, IntegrityUSA and the Episcopal Women's Caucus will be helping deputies and bishops do their homework on this subject before then.

It's not just The Episcopal Church or the Olympic International Athletics Foundation who are being asked to tolerate ambiguity.

As more and more Trans people find the courage to stand up, identify themselves, and tell their stories, more and more people around the world will wake up to the fact that God is the very One who created ambiguity.

The God of Our Understanding is One who surpasses our understanding.

I believe God is calling us not only to tolerate ambiguity, but to embrace it, love it and celebrate it.

Because God does.

I believe Transpeople have now taken on the task of doing the final, heavy lifting as we continue to work to break down barriers that divide us as God's children and dismantle the oppressive structures of sexism and misogyny.

Good thing they're not alone. Those of us who have been long-time (for some of us, life-long) activists in the LGBT and Feminist/Womanist/Mujerista/Asian communities will be right there with them, helping to shoulder some of the burden.

It's very important work, the next step of the long journey to create a place where we may catch an even greater glimpse of the Realm of God on this side of Paradise.

As Dr. Dregger says,
“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'm giggling here, imagining the Holy Messiness of Heaven.

When we get there - and I do believe that we're all going to heaven - some of us are in for a Very Big Surprise.


Марко Фризия said...

Your points about gender and gender identity are well taken. I have a feeling that no one would be focusing on Caster Semenya's gender if she lost. In 2008, President Obama won 365 electoral votes to John McCain's 173 electoral votes (and had close to a 10 million popular vote lead over McCain -- compared to George Bush's -500,000 popular vote loss to Al Gore in 2000). No one would be raising ridiculous questions about President Obama's birth certificate and legitimacy as an American citizen if he had lost the 2008 election. "For me, she's not a woman. She's a man." This hostility and marginalization seems to be more about certain folks being sore losers than legitimate complaints about Caster's gender. Why didn't Caster's gender becomne an issue until she won and others were defeated? All of that said, I do agree that gender isn't always clear cut. In males, certain conditions (for example, something as subtle as hypospadias) can be understood as a biological intersex trait. St. Paul observes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) What matters most is our common humanity and our status as children of God. We might not all fit into tidy boxes or categories, but everyone is a perfect "fit" in God's commonwealth. Nature mnay be sloppy at times, but certainly no one is a mistake or a reject.

IT said...

I'm so tired of the tradition of putting everything into binary.


Why can't we get over it and recognize the 256 shades of grey?

Matthew said...

And its not just trans people where there is ambiguity but also the Intersexed or GLBTI. There is much written about this -- books and a few good documentaries including Middle Sex and First Do No Harm. It was the practice in past generations to perform surgeries as quickly and as soon as possible on the infants to solve the ambiguity. Some have grown up and felt the surgeries do not match their identity. Therefore, pediatric associations and others now discourage such surgeries. What this means is that in a generation from now there will many of these people wandering around who did not have their gender chosen by parents and doctors. And, its a bigger issue than our church. Can such a person be a Roman Catholic Priest? If not, how about a Nun?

IT said...

To be fair, it is also worth noting that transgenders an d intersexed folk DO provide a certain complication for sporting events that separate men and women. There's a good physical reason that men and women don't compete directly against each other. It's quite a question, where to draw the line.

I read somewhere that the effect of testosterone on muscle development degrades fairly quickly if the hormone is not provided. But as we learned from teh East German women swimmers in the 70s and 80s, if you give a woman testosterone, there is an unfair advantage against other women. (This is why women who work out with weights don't see anything like the benefit that men do in pure muscle mass: the T-drug is quite something in building mass and strength.)

So I could see some justification for an endocrine basis of gender assignment for the purpose of sport. That seems far more justifiable than gross anatomy.

Katie B said...

It is a little bit shocking to me that when confronted with the amazing complexity of creation so many people simply refuse to believe it. I love the idea that God has created the world is a way that defies tidy boxes. The idea that the infinite source and creator of the universe, who knows all things somehow can't get over bianary thinkings seems rather peculiar.

Bill said...

Whatever tests they come up with should weigh the physical characteristics of male vs. female. Whereas in everyday society where psychology, sexual preference, and gender identification have merit and should be part of any decision process, in sports, that may not be possible. There has to be some common sense in all of this. The average male of the species has more muscle mass and larger skeletal structure than the average female. It’s not opinion, it’s just a fact. For there to be some fairness in sports, there has to be some criteria to regulate participants. Look at the sport of gymnastics. There are certain exercises that males contest in and not females. Men compete in the parallel bars while women use the uneven bars. Different skills and different levels of strength are required. Men have the rings and the horse while women have the balance bar and the vault; again, different strokes for different folks.

Years ago in New York City they re-wrote the physical testing requirements for fire fighters. They used to be required to carry a hundred pounds on their backs and run up five flights of stairs. That and other requirements were changed to make it possible for more females to pass the physical requirements. The current method of testing is a series of timed events. The candidates are required to wear equipment weighing about forty pounds consisting of a weighted vest, an air tank and gloves. One of the tests is to drag a 130 pound dummy through a tunnel to the far end. It’s still not easy, but it’s not what it used to be. I don’t know what the answers are but if all the concerned parties can do away with their preconceived notions and prejudices, they may be able to come up with something fair and acceptable to all.

Cameron Partridge said...

Thanks so much for this, Elizabeth. As a transman, and as someone with intersex family members, I especially appreciate your emphasis on the God who doesn't put us all into neat little boxes.

It's so good to know we're not alone-- it's a true honor to be in the trenches with you.



Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks so much to you all for your thoughtful comments. I think this is a really important story to watch as it unfolds, precisely for the reasons many of you have written. It's culturally iconic, isn't it?

And Cameron, sweetie, I am constantly in awe of the bravery and courage folks like you and Gari have shown. The privilege is all mine.

Let us know as soon as you and your partner have that baby. November 1st, right? How absolutely exciting! And, pictures. I want pictures. ;~)

Paul (A.) said...

Technically, love, C061 died in the House of Deputies after the Deputies refused to accept the evisceration of the proposal by the junior house. (Don't believe what the View Legislation page says; the Resolutions Status report has the story, albeit abbreviated.)

JCF said...

I'm just looking for some clarification here: no one's even remotely accusing Caster Semenya of being Trans, are they?

Isn't the allegation is that she's Intersexed?

[Trans: has made an intentional crossing or blurring of gender and/or sex, as in "transition."

Intersexed: a person with an innate chromosomal, morphological and/or hormonal condition---usually, though not always, evident at birth---of falling somewhere BETWEEN the gender binary.

Of course, an Intersexed person may also transition from an assigned gender, to the other (and hence, be both Intersexed and Trans. They're much more likely to ID as just the former, I believe though).]

As a Genderqueer person (on the Trans spectrum) myself, I feel it is incumbent upon Trans people to reveal their status in physical competition (esp. if their former, assigned gender---that is, the one they do NOT identify with---would provide an average advantage). This is NOT to say that said person should be automatically excluded from competing as their self-identified gender! (It should just be on a case-by-case basis, as Renee' Richards was given permission to compete in women's tennis)

In the case of an Intersexed person, they might quite possibly NOT KNOW of their condition. Such cases, I believe, should be treated with the UTMOST discretion and sensitivity. Once again, there should be no automatic exclusion from competing in their self-identified gender. [It also matters in the type of athletics they compete in. I note that the 800M is a tricky race to call in that regards! If Caster compete in the 100, higher levels of testosterone would almost certainly give her an advantage---by the same measure, if she competed in the 5000, it probably wouldn't . . . but ouch, the 800 is right on the line! :-0]

A difficult subject, to be sure...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, Paul. I didn't want to get into a sidebar about that, b/c I was stunned and now find myself still angry at that particular move by that particular bishop which was accepted by the entire HOB as something they thought was an acceptable way forward.

I do love it that the HOD let the way to justice on this one, but the whole thing still makes me angry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF, I believe the issue is her gender and the question is straightforward: male or female?

Which, as you so clearly state, is way too simplistic. It's so much more complicated that that.

Thanks for writing, luv.

Paul (A.) said...

Can you identify "that particular bishop", which we obviously need to keep an eye on? I was downstairs.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - if you write me offline, I'm happy to share.

IT said...

Disagree, JCF. If sex etc had no effect on long-distance runners, then the marathon records for men and women would be the same. Men are around 2.04 and women around 2.15.

Same thing with longer distances. Men are still faster. Even though the champions are small and gracile in build.

Now, pure muscle mass DOES make a big difference to sprinters (it's why they are always huge) but clearly there are still sex-specific differences that are not purely linked to muscle mass even at the longer distances.

In any event, I used testosterone purely as one example of the physical differences between men and women.

As is my wont, I am speculating generally, not about this particular case.

But on this case, It's worth noting that it's not like she shattered the world record. They were all well off that pace. So as Dahveed pointed out elsewhere, sour grapes. Unless and until proven otherwise, I will assume that it's just nasty protest against a woman with a masculine presentation. Sucks to the protesters.

Why are people so hung up on gendered appearances anyway?