Comment: Speculation over athlete’s sex has brought trans issues into the open

PinkNews Staff Writer August 21, 2009
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South African sprinter Caster Semenya’s win in the 800m has been hailed by her country as a fantastic victory but the world is now waiting to see if she is truly a woman.

It will take several more weeks for doctors to pronounce whether Semenya is classed as a man or a woman, but in the meantime, coverage of her case has put gender and trans issues in the spotlight.

Frequently, media reporting on gender identity issues is sensationalist, prurient and tinged with faint disgust. Tabloid treatment of those who seek to change gender often portrays them as freaks and, especially in the case of male-to-female transitions, deviants.

Consider the recent case of Mercedes Newbiggin, the Southport boxer who said a tabloid story about her sex change made her out to be “some kind of freak”.

Or trans woman Chrisie Edkins, who told she had been portrayed as a “drag queen” when she told her story to a weekly women’s magazine.

However, Semenya, as a professional, successful and respected athlete, has been spared much of this. True, the speculation must be extremely humiliating for her, but it has pushed gender and trans issues into the open to be discussed in an informative way.

A number of newspapers have run lengthy articles discussing how sex is medically classified and explaining the spectrum of disorders of sexual development, from intersexuality and Klinefelter’s Syndrome to congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

These pieces barely touch upon the emotional and mental implications for those who are sexually ambiguous or identify as the opposite sex, but they do offer balanced information for the general public, who unsurprisingly know little about the subject. Many readers on admit they are baffled by the complex and sometimes confusing terminology of gender and trans issues.

When many people, including some in the medical profession, view issues such as gender dysphoria as mental illnesses, accessible, plain-English information on some parts of the trans spectrum can only be a good thing.

The case also raises the question of what sex, in the biological sense, actually is. Is it an outward physical construct, a question of chromosomes, a mental state?

A number of female athletes over the years have been found to be chromosomally male, despite identifying and being classed in all other respects as female.

Some gender theorists believe the concept of gender should be entirely abolished but in sectors such as sport, it is difficult to see how this can be done.

Semenya undoubtedly looks masculine, as some women do, but it is questionable as to whether a medical test can determine her gender when she has lived as a woman for all of her 18 years. It would be horrendously unfair to disqualify this promising young athlete for something she may be unaware of and has absolutely no control over.

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