You’re a man, you say? Well step right up and prove it. No, no, keep your pants on, because visual evidence is not going to do it. I need to see a report from your geneticist, your endocrinologist, and your psychologist. Of course, as far as I know, men have never had to prove they’re men (except in the usual ways, one of which is being combative). No, in real life, it’s women who have to prove they are women.
Let’s say that you are (allegedly) a man, and you are in a footrace with another “man”, whom you secretly suspect is a woman. You win. Do you then say, I demand to know if my opponent was really a man? Of course not. You say, “I won! Case closed!” But what if “she” wins? Do you then say, I demand to know if she is really a woman, because if she is, that gave her an unfair advantage? Of course not–because that scenario would never happen. Male runners will always outrun female runners, unless the male trips over his shoelace. And that will never happen either, because that’s why God invented Velcro.
In real life, it’s women who complain when they are beaten by men who are “pretending” to be women. Which really would be an unfair advantage (see above, re: “Male runners will always outrun…”). But what if she isn’t pretending?
The occasion for this topic is a blip of a snippet of a story I heard on NPR yesterday, concerning an 18 year-old South African woman named Caster Semenya, who on Thursday of this week won a gold medal in the 800 meters in the world championships in Berlin. Some of her competitors complain that she is really a man, but it’s unclear whether it was them or someone involved in the specimen collection process for the anti-doping tests who officially raised the question of her gender. (They watch you pee. In person. Naked–at least the peeing parts.) So the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) is now investigating her gender. Which it turns out is not as simple as it used to be. It used to be that if you were found to have a Y chromosome, you were male, end of sentence. As I said, it turns out not to be that simple.
I will now refer you to two pieces I read today in the New York Times. The first is an essay written by one Alice Dreger, “Professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University”, entitled “Where’s the Rulebook for Sex Verification?” See it here. In case you aren’t interested in reading the whole thing, I’ll quote an important paragraph:
“A little biology: On the Y chromosome, a gene called SRY usually makes a fetus grow as a male. It turns out, though, that SRY can show up on an X, turning an XX fetus essentially male. And if the SRY gene does not work on the Y, the fetus develops essentially female.
Even an XY fetus with a functioning SRY can essentially develop female. In the case of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the ability of cells to “hear” the masculinizing hormones known as androgens is lacking. That means the genitals and the rest of the external body look female-typical, except that these women lack body hair (which depends on androgen-sensitivity).”
Did you get that? Yeah, me too.
Now we turn to the second article, which is more factual, but first, let’s take a look at Ms. Semenya. (So far I haven’t seen any jokes made about this, so let me be the first to say that it’s unfortunate that her last name begins with the word “semen”.)
The second article is “Gold Is Awarded Amid Dispute Over Runner’s Sex”. See it here. There are a couple of quotes from this article that struck me. Here is one:
“Chuene and some South African athletes 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.””
Oh no. Not THAT again. Fellow blogger and now close friend Nick Hardy and I have extensively discussed the issue of looking for racism. You are guaranteed to always find it. The same holds for sexism. If you start with the premise that it’s there somewhere, everything you see and hear will confirm for you that it explains everything. That’s why I posted the picture first. This woman (?) could have purple skin with pink polka dots and she would still look like a man.
But she thinks of herself as a woman, her family thinks of her as a woman, so who is to say? What fascinates me about this that the professionals–the geneticists, the endocrinologists, the psychologists, and in her case, the gynecologists–may say whatever they will, but this is not a medical or scientific problem. It’s a philosophical problem.
I close with another quote from the second article:
“We can get quite philosophical here — what does it mean to be male or female?” said Dr. Richard Auchus, a specialist in disorders of sexual differentiation at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
“For 99 percent of the population it’s easy to determine,” he added. “But one percent of the population have conditions that make it not so straightforward.”
Be glad that you are in the 99%. Or are you? Prove it. Oh wait. Isn’t this where we started?