Blurring the Lines: The Strange Case Of Caster Semenya

Daniel MuthSenior Analyst ISeptember 15, 2009

Depending on whose statistics you quote and what characteristics you apply, the commonality of "intersex" individuals ranges quite a bit. But in a widely quoted and recognized book on the subject, Anne Fausto-Sterling reported that approximately 1.7 percent of children are born with some form of this condition.

And since there are approximately 6.8 billion people on Earth, we can estimate that roughly 115 million individuals on the planet could be classified under the same category as Caster Semenya, the embattled South African runner whose sexuality has been questioned in the wake of her impressive 800-meter win at the World Championships in Berlin in August.

For those that have a hard time visualizing this number, it is more than one-third of the population of the entire United States—a lot of people.

So what's really strange about the case of Semenya is that it really isn't strange at all.  What's strange is that we've so whole-heartedly ignored this section of the population, leaving them to suffer the daily indignities of not fitting into a system that doesn't even recognize their existence.

I've never seen an intersex sign on a bathroom door and I've never really bothered to consider if there should even be one. So I can imagine how these individuals might view themselves and how ridiculed and ignored they must feel.

There is no significant movement for intersex rights. There is no affirmative action aimed at helping intersex minorities along the way.

Because we pretend that they don't exist, intersex individuals often hide in broad daylight, at school, at work and in sport, even at the World Championships. They portray a role that we're more comfortable with and avoid the humiliation of becoming true carnival acts.

In all likelihood, Semenya didn't even know that she was intersex. Though well muscled, the outward manifestation of her physiology is female. But it is now being reported that she may also be in possession of testicles that simply never descended.

How would she know that? 

She was raised as a girl in a remote part of South Africa, where medical examinations are neither as frequent or thorough.

And though I'm sure her life was filled with the suffering of a woman not thought to be attractive, there seems to be no deceit involved in her athletic competition.

I imagine she found it to be a refuge from a world that can be all too cruel.

A world that has now reappeared in the wake of her greatest triumph. A world that seems poised to call her a cheat. A world that isn't sure that there is any place for her and would rather she crawled back under a rock in South Africa.

A world that, at the very least, wants her to know she's a freak.

The problem is that although her outspoken detractors may be crude and vile in their application of her shunning, there are uncomfortable and not easily-solved problems that she presents.

The first of these regards why we even distinguish between men's and women's athletics at all. The basic premise is that women can't compete with men at the highest levels and therefore should be allowed their own category.

This ignores the many shades of gray.

There is not a sharp line that designates one from the other. Most world class female athletes do have more masculine bodies than the average woman, do have higher testosterone levels than the average woman and do exploit those advantages to become champions.

The same could be said of men.

Shaquille O'Neal is clearly a man, but not like one I've ever met. His high levels of human growth hormone, testosterone and other natural steroids have made him a giant. 

While he would be labeled a cheat if he was caught artificially injecting HGH, O'Neal's hyperactive pituitary gland seems to be within the realm of fairness.

How is this so different than Semenya?

At her very essence she is a person with female physiology, but with naturally occurring increases in testosterone production. And if she isn't allowed to compete, what are we to tell the 115 million individuals just like her when they want to compete in athletics?

That there's no place for them here?

Just as we seem to have denied them a place in society?

Already humiliated, Semenya has drawn back into seclusion. She has been allowed to keep her medals but not without a building uproar that other medals be awarded to the "true" winners of that race in Germany.

Those "true" females with the more masculine bodies and elevated testosterone levels.

I can only hope the Semenya doesn't allow this to crush her.

I hope she shows up for her next race and forces us to recognize her, consider her and, come what may, see her for the person she is, rather than the oddity we'd rather ignore.

Because if not, the world will forget all about Semenya or think of her as a cheat, settling back into its comfortable ignorance.

That's human nature.

And if you consider the annals of history, unfortunately, there's nothing strange about that.