Tuesday, September 15, 2009

intersex and sports

Caster Semenya's gender testing to defend her gold medal in the 800 meter in the World Championship in Athletics has generated new interest in the problems intersexuality causes in the highest echelons of sports. Gratefully, the South African leadership has been very supportive of her, but that does not take away the invasion of her privacy and human rights created by this investigation.

Semenya is not the first intersexual to have these issues. Erik Schinegger, an Austrian world champion women's downhill skier (he transitioned later in life), was disqualified from the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble (ironically, this was the first modern Olympic to introduce sex testing after an inaccurate complaint that many of the Soviet top women athletes were actually men). Edinanci Silva, a Brazilian Judo fighter, has been allowed to participate in Summer Olympics at Atlanta (1996) Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004) but only after undergoing surgery and hormone therapy. This would lead some to believe that sports organizations are becoming somewhat more sensitive to intersex athletes, however in 2006 Santhi Soundarajan won the silver medal in the 800 meter race at the Asian Games, but had it taken away when she failed a sex test.

The reasoning behind sex testing is quite obvious, they don't want men to sneak into women's events where they are perceived to have a natural advantage. As an intersexual, I find it frustrating that this is the reason to take away intersexuals medals. The most common intersex condition, and the one most of the afore mentioned athletes get caught with is androgen insensitivity syndrome. In this case, their bodies don't respond to testosterone (unlike "real" women who still do make and use some of the hormone). If anything, they are at a disadvantage competing in women's events, even for those with conditions where their bodies do respond to testosterone, and they are living successfully as a women, their levels of testosterone are usually not too far out of the range for a normal female.

Gender in general is becoming less and less of an issue as the athletic achievement gap between men and and women closes, and in some cases overlaps. My favorite example of this is Hermann (Dora) Ratjen who was forced by the Nazi's to participate in the women's high jump in the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. The Nazi high command believe he would easily beat all of the women, but instead he came in fourth, three 'real' women were better then him. Another case of this is the marathon finishing times between men and women, which are shrinking every year. In short the practice of gender testing causes many problems, and the reasoning behind it is becoming more of a moot point.

This is not to say I think men and women should compete against each other in the same event, that would create more problems then it would solve. I do think, however, that sex testing should be eliminated, it is degrading and humiliating to all athletes (just ask Princess Anne, who got out of testing in the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, claiming it was "unseemly"). It is even worse for an intersexed athlete who might not even know about their condition. They would be humiliated, and possibly ostracized if their ethnicity has strict rules about gender roles. It is also a terrible invasion of their privacy, if they don't want the world to know about their condition, they should have that right. The worst part of gender testing is that it is terribly unfair towards intersexed athletes, if they qualify, they should have every right to compete without having their medals taken away if they win. Even if gender testing is not eliminated, some sort of provision should be made to allow intersexuals the right to compete. To do otherwise adds to the practice of keeping intersexuals a hidden group of second class citizens. In some ways this is our bus, and like Rosa Parks, we have to say we have as much right to be here as you.

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