Dustin Jeremy Ross
“What is the ultimate difference between a man and a women?” This question is examined in Ariel Levy‘s New Yorker Article “Either/Or.” In the past, gender has been broken into two wholly distinct categories: male and female. However, Caster Semenya–the large and muscular female South African runner who’s gender has come under much scrutiny–exemplifies the insufficiency of these categories in capturing the complex relation between sex and gender and modern sports.
Caster Semenya’s case puts at odds the ideas of fair competition and personal identity. After all, though Semenya identifies as a female, she does have masculine qualities which give her an undeniable biological advantage over her competitors. According to fellow runner Elisa Cusma of Italy, Semenya “should not run with [women]” for she “is not a woman. She is a man.” This quotation is extremely distasteful as it is rife with anger and jealousy toward Semenya’s success; however, if we consider the principal of fair competition and its importance in sports, Cusma’s anger is understandable.
Many people compare Semenya’s hormonal advantage to, for example, Yao Ming’s height advantage in an attempt to justify her right to compete as female. Such a comparison, however, is inappropriate. In basketball, there is no divide between tall and short athletes. In track and field, however, athletes are deliberately split between male and female to make even the playing field. Semenya’s right to race as a female is not in question
simply because she has an advantage over her competitors, but because she straddles the line between two distinct categories in racing. Nobody is arguing that Semenya shouldn’t be allowed to race at all, but rather that she is currently racing in the wrong category. Though she identifies as female, her biology is less unequivocal, and it is thus ambiguous which category she belongs in. The question remains, does it violate the principal of fair play for her to compete against other women because of her fundamental biological advantage? We see that Semenya’s right to self identify is inherently opposed with the principal of fair play.
After 2009 (when “Either/Or” was written), Semenya was, in fact, permitted to compete as a female. She went on to carry the South African flag and win a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics. Her reinstatement was not unconditional, however, as it was contingent on her “have[ing] surgery or receive[ing] hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit[ing] to regular monitoring.” Semenya was forced to alter her own hormonal makeup–to fundamentally change herself–in order to compete in the gender category with which she had always identified. I find this extremely troublesome. For her entire life, Caster Semenya had identified as a girl, and now she was being told that in order to compete as one, she must change. When comparing photos from before and after her hormonal treatment, the difference is astounding and disturbing. This action, taken to ensure fair competition, is in clear violation of Semenya’s right to self identification, and, surely, will have lasting physical and psychological consequences on her.
The peculiar case of Caster Semenya puts at odds our values of fair competition and self identification. Both of these are held sacred in our society, but with Semenya, we must chose. We must chose between telling someone who they are in order to preserve the sanctity of the game, or allowing people to define their own identities at the cost of fair competition. I, quite frankly, don’t know which choice is better, but if forced to chose, I believe we as a society should value the right to self identification at all costs.