GENDER IDENTITY CRISIS IN SPORTS: CASTER SEMENYA'S DILEMMA
ll human endeavours are governed by rules. One of the most graceful of human activities, sports, is governed by the rule of the game and each game has its own set of rules. Without rules greed (a basic human instinct) reigns supreme and the law of the jungle takes over. Rules are ubiquitous and are as diverse as you can make them. In some countries a man can be charged with rape if he forced his wife to have sex with him against her will. Greed and rules are always watching out for each other. When rule is unobservant greed attempts to take advantage. To every rule, however, there is an exception and to every exception, a backup rule. When the feminist movement of the 1960s started out to champion gender equality it made several exceptions. The equal rights slogan conveniently avoided sports and property rights in the case of divorce. You would notice that during divorce hearings the male party would nearly always hire a female lawyer to represent him against his wife. He and all the finest male lawyers in the world stood no chance against his wife before the law. A male lawyer cannot bring himself to bring out incriminating evidence against the wife such as her extravagant lifestyle, nagging, extramarital affairs, etc., quite the way a female lawyer can. If he tried he would have walked into a trap as the apparently beleaguered woman would just have to start crying in court and she would have scooped up every drop of sympathy.
South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the final of the Women's 800m during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Sports will, for a long time, remain an area where you dare not mention gender equality if you are a man. Women will continue to hold on to gender segregation against men in sport. There are some sports in which gender segregation strikes me as odd and unnecessary. I find women tennis more exciting than the male version of the event. I see no advantage that the masculine gender confers on golf because it is a game about coordination (a function of the brain) and not strength (a function of muscle bulk) unless the feminists are trying to undermine their own argument that mentally they are as good as any man. In the Olympics, I see no advantages that men have over women in events like archery, chess, shooting, fencing, and equestrian sports. In fact the last mentioned sport in my opinion should be removed from the Olympics because I feel it is the horse that earns the medals and not the rider. But then the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its own methods and to my regret they have just approved women boxing to feature in the next Olympiad.
I have nothing against women who want to punch each other silly. I am an advocate of removing even male boxing from the Olympics. Don’t get me wrong. I love boxing and I still like to watch the best athletes of the sport like Manny Pacquiao demonstrate their skills. The marvel, however, only lasts as long as I remain focused on Manny. When I am tempted to focus on the unfortunate boxer at the receiving end of Manny’s deadly left hand, and when I think of his girlfriend, wife or mother watching her loved one being pummelled this way my galloping pleasure quickly comes to a grinding halt. I was a member of the boxing team in my high school until the day I watched a kid slump and cried for a long while like a baby out of the pain a punch from his opponent to his abdomen caused. That was the day I realized boxing is not sport but an expression of animal instinct that once entertained Romans in their amphitheatres as they set gladiators against each other to fight to the death at the pleasure of the applauding spectators. Las Vegas is an acceptable venue for boxers to entertain (for millions) the somewhat degenerate tourists that love the city. It is claimed (though I can’t prove it) that the dictator of Germany, Adolf Hitler, hated boxing so much he banned it from his country. That, in my opinion, is one act of civility the man to whom it is popular to ascribe all the superlative negative adjectives should be credited for.
In every major international sports event heroes are born and so are villains. The hero of the 1972 Munich Olympics was definitely the American, Mark Spitz, who hauled seven gold medals in swimming while the title of villain probably went to the Palestinian militants who murdered Israeli athletes at the event. The Canadian, Ben Johnson, would be a hero at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 at one moment with his new world record at the 100m track race and later be the villain when allegations of steroid abuse was proved against him. At the Beijing Olympics last year Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt distinguished themselves as heroes for their respective countries, USA and Jamaica, while Angel Matos, the taekwondo athlete from Cuba who sent a vicious kick to the referee’s head for an unfavourable decision, along with Ara Abrahamian, the Armenian-born Swedish wrestler who threw the bronze medal he won on the floor in expression of anger over his failure to win gold, would remain villains of the Olympics.
The on-going Athletic World Championship in Berlin has already produced a spectacular moment when Usain Bolt, last year’s co-hero reincarnated himself with another brilliant record-setting run in the 200m race. But we are not done yet. The traditional villain of the event is yet to be uncovered (unless I missed something somewhere) but through no fault of ‘hers’, the gold medal winning runner at the female event of the 800m race from South Africa, Caster Semenya, and ‘her’ compatriots will have an awful waiting period to determine if the athlete is a he or a she. This is because to retain the title the youth has trained so hard for and won a mandatory test has to prove that Caster is a she. The rule of engagement demands it. Fellow competitors and feminist movements expect no less. What exactly is the matter with Caster Semenya that caused her gender to be in doubt?
Her birth mother swore that their ‘girl’ is a she. A birth certificate was shown as proof that the baby born on January 7, 1991 to Dorcus Semenya was registered as a female. Those who knew the growing girl are ready by their hundreds to swear that she is a girl. I bet if Caster has a boyfriend he would have been invited to talk shows to tell the world what he knows about ‘her’. But if Caster has a boyfriend would the answer be so hard to guess? Of course, he would describe that aspect of ‘her’ anatomy that marks ‘her’ with the feminine identity. However much Caster’s hypothetical boyfriend, her own mother or the doctor who took the delivery of the baby are convinced that ‘she’ is a girl, it is not a proof of her gender. Being male or female is much more than what the eye can see.
Caster, like the Indian athlete, Santhi Soundarajan, who found ‘herself’ in a similar controversy at the 2006 Asian Games, knows that a test result will determine if their lives continue on the same track or they have to change to conform to a new gender identity. If you have ever waited for the result of a test to tell you whether you have cancer or AIDS you will understand what Caster is going through right now and what Santhi went through three years earlier. By sheer coincidence, Santhi competed and won a silver medal in the same 800m race at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar that Caster has won gold for in Berlin. The revelation that Santhi, contrary to what ‘she’ knew, was a man coupled with the stripping of the silver medal ‘she’ won took their toll on the youngster who attempted suicide the following year. Caster is at a precipice and ‘she’ can do with all the support ‘she’ can get. Hopefully the result will prove that she is indeed a bona fide member of the exclusive club of females from which many of us feel ostracised when a prize is up for grabs in a competition. The situation calls for patience and sensitivity. Caster is already exhibiting the traits of strain over the matter. In an interview over the controversy she said she didn’t “give a damn”. Denial!
Caster has every reason to give a damn because what awaits her better be good or she will have to reorganize her whole life to her new gender identity. The transition is not going to be easy. Her family, compatriots and her government have come to her defence trying to shield her from the unsolicited international media attention with allegations of unfairness. Fairness, however, is what is stoking this fire. All the females who competed in the event want fairness. I hope the circle of support for Caster will remain as strong in the unfortunate event ‘she’ failed the test.
What exactly is at the core of this controversy?
Caster may be the unfortunate victim of a medical condition called Testicular Feminization Syndrome (TFS) for which a more appropriate term will be Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS). The victims are genetically males with 23XY chromosomal compliment but are phenotypically females in appearance complete with the body habitus of females and external appearance of female genitalia. These unfortunate males are raised as females by their unsuspecting parents. The longer it takes for the discovery to be made the more devastating the consequences of the realization on the victims. The trauma of gender confusion aside these ‘females’ cannot at present be able to conceive and reproduce as a normal female would. They are in reality truly gender confused.
At the root of this fault of nature is the fact that basically we are all females at conception. Of the 23 pairs of chromosomes (the genetic codes that determine our physical, functional and behavioural characteristics and determine why children look like their parents rather than the neighbour unless something is going on) each nucleated cell in the body has (with the exception of the ovum, the sperm and some cells that don’t have nuclei like the mature red blood cells) pairs of chromosomes numbered consecutively from 1 to 23. The chromosomes are X-shaped in appearance and are numbered in the order of decreasing sizes. The constituent members of the pair are all are identical in females. In the male, the same holds true except that the last pair has one member which seems to have lost one of its arms and looks like the letter Y. One small difference this chromosome has with its pairing member is that it is smaller. The Y chromosome is the smallest of all the chromosomes of the human species. In absolute terms females have more genetic materials than males. By default all human fetuses are females. The Y chromosome is what determines whether an ovum fertilized at conception will go on to develop into a male or a female. A developing ovum that loses its copy of the Y chromosome is probably going to die and be aborted within three months of pregnancy. If, however, the fetus goes on to mature, it will more or less be female.
The gender-determining chromosome, the Y chromosome carries a gene called the SRY gene. It is this gene that determines the development of the male genitals and the only means by which gender is normally assigned at birth. The SRY gene in the Y chromosome directs the primordial gonad to develop into a pair of testes rather than ovaries. The developing testis under the influence of this gene produces male hormones chief of which is testosterone which can also be produced by the developing female ovary during the embryonal age but at a smaller amount. This hormone influences the genital tubercle to enlarge to become the penis in the male but in its absence (or when less than a critical amount) results in the clitoris in the female to remain small in size.
In a different but related scenario, when certain enzymes that normally process the synthesis of certain hormones in the adrenal gland are congenitally deficient the substrates that are converted to other hormones like the female sex hormones are diverted to produce more of the male hormone adding to an abundance of testosterone in the blood. In male babies it may be evident by a large penis at birth and in female babies it may produce an enlarged clitoris that makes it difficult to decide if the baby is male or female. A high concentration of testosterone will conversely result in the vaginal opening closing up and the structures that will normally develop into the cervix, the uterus and the fallopian tubes to degenerate.
Actually there are equivalent structures or their remnants in both females and males. The clitoris and the penis, the ovary and testis have already been mentioned as equivalents. The labium major in the female is the equivalent of the scrotum in the male and the labium minor is the equivalent of the floor of the male urethra. A gentle palpation of the testis across the scrotal wall may uncover a small, firm swelling not bigger than a grain of rice towards the upper pole. This is the remnant of what would have been the fallopian tube if any male had inherited an X-chromosome rather than a Y-chromosome from his father. The level of testosterone in the developing baby determines if we can recognize the baby as a male or female at birth. Thus, the dividing line between a male and a female developmentally is very, very thin. So the next time you are tempted to beat your chest and tell your wife, “Who is the man in this house?” to flaunt your masculinity know that basically you are a female with a higher level of testosterone in your blood.
In the case of CAIS or TFS, the receptor on which the hormone testosterone is supposed to exert its effect is faulty and for all practical purposes the testosterone is nonexistent in the bodies of those individuals. It is like a man is elected as the president of the country but his access to the office of the president is blocked and he cannot form a makeshift office anywhere else. That person is a president only in name. A political corollary will be in the case of Chief Moshood Abiola swearing himself as president of Nigeria in 1994 whereas General Sani Abacha occupied the seat of power.
For men like Santhi (and Caster, if ‘she’ fails measure up to the genetic definition of femalehood) there is not much that can be done to make them men again because even the best available medical expertise cannot perfectly reproduce the action of testosterone in the uterus. If Caster is reading this article, my advice to ‘her’ is return the medal to the organizers of the championship and come back for it when the result of the test carried out on ‘her’ says ‘she’ has the 23XX genetic compliments, the absolute proof that she is female. In that event she might want to become pregnant and prove to obstinate doubters once and for all that ‘she’ is a woman. As for me, ‘her’ resemblance to a male is so strong I will be surprised ‘she’ is actually a woman.