Monday, September 14, 2009

Caster Semenya- Let Me Be a Woman

I've noticed the unhelpful, speculative chatter about Caster Semenya, enough that I wanted to share a few thoughts I've written elsewhere (Ruby Slippers) and give followers of Jesus a moment to pause. Especially in light of confusing posts such as "Do all Hermaphrodites Automatically God to Hell?"

The short version of Ms. Semenya's story: her running talents have pushed her to the forefront of competition as recently as last month in the World Athletic Championship where this South African track star, finished a full eight seconds ahead of her competition in the 800 meter, a race I trained for in high school. It's a doozy, the hardest long sprint I've every done. Interestingly, her speed is not unheard of in women. Ms. Semenya's time, 1 minute 55.45 seconds is several seconds behind the current world record, held by Czechoslovakian, Jarmila Kratochvilova, 1 minutes 53.28. I don't believe Kratochvilova enduring the same kind of treatment that Semenya faces.

The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), responding to accusations that Ms. Semenya looks masculine and is way too fast to be a woman, required the 18 year old to undergo testing (a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender issues) to determine her sexuality. The testing indicates that Ms. Semenya has normal female genitals, but internally has testes, and no womb or ovaries. She looks female on the outside, but produces more testosterone on the inside. The situation is not as unheard of as you might think. People with ambiguous genitalia make up a real, living, breathing percentage of our population, about 1 in every 2000 births in the United States. Read more specific statistics.

In response some were quick to use the inaccurate label of "hermaphrodite," which refers to pepole who have fully functioning genitals of both sexes. Since, Ms. Semenya has already endured the testing to determine her gender and exposure to the prying eyes of the public I feel it's necessary to speak up about her situation here, as carefully and charitably as I can.

First, let's get our terms more accurate. A person born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that do not fit clearly into typical male or female categories is an intersex person, not a hermaphrodite. For more read the front page at the Intersex Society of North America. One common and tragic characteristic among intersex people is their inability to have children. Sometimes they do not know why, some intersex people live and die without ever knowing they have anything ambiguous about their sexual identity. I find this fascinating and helpful in understanding Ms. Semenya.

In Ruby Slippers, I make a big deal about the main characteristic that joins all women together--the female body. Femininity isn't based in our high heels or acrylic nails, but it is owning a female body. And all women know that to own and glory in the body they've been given is hardly an easy task--I don't care how beautiful, athletic or svelte you are--it's tough. We don't believe Psalm 139, not entirely.

Ms. Semenya has the additional task of owning a body that has male genitalia inside. Can you imagine the task?

And yet, she's doing it, rather boldly and with much more pizzazz than most teenage girls.

In a recent appearance on the cover of the South African magazine, You, Ms. Semenya wears make-up, a dark dress, jewelry, and yes, that's fingernail polish. All marks of femininity today in our culture. The fact that she wears culturally chosen symbols of femininity does not turn her into a woman, but it does mean something significant to us, she has chosen to identify herself as female. It means she wants her body bedecked in feminine marks. And this takes courage and ownership, especially in light of what the world knows about her internal organs.

Ms. Semenya has reached the age where she believes she knows her gender identity. Intersex children are often forced to endure genital amputation to clarify their sexuality before leaving the hospital. The reason? Most parents aren't happy about bringing home a baby who isn't clearly male or female. Intersex people today advocate parents to protect their child from the emotional and physical scarring of reconstructive surgery in infancy and recommend parents raise each baby individually, either with a sex chosen or not. However, at adolescence, most intersex children develop and see themselves as either boys or girls. The case in As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl gives a helpful story of what happens when medical intervention botches up a human's gender.

And Ms. Semenya is not an exception in knowing her sexual identity. At 18, she shares that she has been raised as a female and seems to want to be treated as a female, an understandable request given that her body, sans surgery, looks like a woman's. I'm not very sympathetic to the charges that her muscles are so masculine given how many swimmers, runners, soccer players I've seen whose bodies seem just as muscular as Ms. Semenya's.

Whether the IAAF or even doctors completely agree with her, Ms. Semenya as an intersex person, has chosen her gender identity. Surely that should give us pause before we start referring to her as "he/she" or "hermaphrodite."

I've read blogs that claim that the Bible has nothing to say about intersex people. Perhaps this is because we're looking for the wrong words. It's true the Bible never mentions intersex or people with ambiguous genitals. But, then, the Bible never mentions the "Trinity", "Providence" or people who want to practice monogomous same sex relationship. However, we still believe the Bible has something to add to these discussions.

As I've written elsewhere,

There is an important, but often ignored question about the intersex person (a person born with ambiguous genitals), or more derogatorily called hermaphrodite, person. Intersex people are often permanently damaged because doctors and parents force a sex on them at infancy, even though most will gravitate toward one gender by adolescence. So how should we respond to those intersex persons whose genitals remain perpetually ambiguous? I would say Christians ought to be the first to validate them as full human souls with all their capacities intact, though with marks of the fallen world on their bodies. Perhaps this is what Christ meant when he said in Matthew, “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb” (19:12). (Ruby Slippers, p 92, ft 30).

The fact that Ms. Semenya cannot bear a child is a mark of living in this fallen world. It will be something she will have to grieve as she grows into her adult years. But it is not something I would have wished her to discover in the limelight.

However, in light of competition and attacks on her right to the gold medal, perhaps the real problem is the athletic community. Perhaps we've insisted on certain lines (male/female) in order to enjoy the thrill of watching a foot race. I can foresee problems arising on both sides. Let's say intersexed people can choose how they want to be identified for the sake of racing. What would prevent intersex men from choosing to compete as women? I suppose their honesty alone? Culturally fluctuating standards or gender? If they appear on the cover of a glamor magazine?

Regardless the problem looms larger and larger. But what about Ms. Semenya? As my husband says, "We've hyped up organized sports so much that they automatically give a person recognition, honor, fame that we don't think to question them as an institution. Instead of questioning the athletic organizations, we're much more interested in questioning this woman."

The IAAF will not be meeting and releasing its results until late November. Regardless of what they decide, I'm convinced that Jesus would want us asking the human question first, the athletic one second. Whether she can compete, keep the medal are significant questions, especially given the meaning we imbue into such events. However, I want first to recognize Ms. Semenya as a woman who wants to be known as a female person who is fully human. She has made it clear that she wants us to see her as a human God made. In her interview she says, "I am who I am and I am proud of myself. God made me the way I am and I accept myself.”(picture: Ms. Semenya with her grandmother)

I, for one, am happy to oblige.


ren said...

Well said, Jonalyn. I have attained great respect for her seeing her dignity in dealing with this kerfuffle. I can't imagine the difficulty of having to defend yourself as a woman in this situation.

Anonymous said...

I particularly feel for her knowing that the identity of a woman as a child-bearer (and her fitness for marriage as such) is even stronger on the African continent than here in America. She doesn't need the world to know what should be private between her and a potential husband. When I saw the news stories come out, you came to mind, and I figured you would be writing an article. Well done.


Chrystal K. said...

I feel so bad for her. I couldn't imagine having such intimate details of my life publicized in front of the whole world.

Anonymous said...


Just wanted to let you know that Andrew Marin wrote about Caster this morning. I'm glad to know there are Christians who are advocating for her and other intersex people.


Beloved Spear said...

Tracked back to this one, so I thought I'd pitch in.

As the author of the Christian post in question above, I'll freely admit that "hermaphrodite" is technically inaccurate. Semenya is, as you note, "intersex," which is not just a chosen term, but also the biologically accurate way to refer to individuals with a blend of gender characteristics. The title of the post was chosen more for alliteration than accuracy.

What appears to have been lost in your reading of my post is that I do not in any way condemn Ms. Semenya. In fact, the purpose of my writing was to challenge Christians who still labor under the delusion that same-gender orientation is just "choosing a sinful lifestyle."

Gender may have strong polarities, but it is...biologically speaking... a continuum. Within that continuum, those who choose to express their God-given sexuality in ways that show respect for and grace to other persons are, quite frankly, living the sort of life Jesus would want. Ms. Semenya has chosen to live as a woman...and that is both a blessing and her God-given right.

Jonalyn Fincher said...

Beloved Spear,

Appreciated your comment here. Thank you for clarifying your point. I understand (and agree with) you more easily now.