Thursday, September 24, 2009

Intersex athlete blurs the rigid male/female dichotomy

At the recent world athletics championships in Berlin (August 2009), 18 year old South African athlete Caster Semenya won the women's 800 metre event by a clear margin (though not in world record time). Doubts were expressed about Caster's status as a female, based on her appearance, and tests have revealed that unusual anatomical features place her as an "intersex", or "hermaphrodite", rather than a true woman..

A developmental biologist from the University of Queensland, interviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald, explained that:

“Early in development within the womb, the gender of a foetus is indistinguishable, determined at between 16 and 20 weeks gestation by the presence of an XX chromosome for a female or XY for a male. The foetal gonads, which have the ability to develop into ovaries or testes, then develop, producing hormones which form external genitalia. But if the foetus has a malformation on the sex chromosomes, such as XXY, or XYY, the gonads can send out mixed messages, causing a female to develop a penis or a male to form a clitoris." ("Testing times for intersex athletes" SMH Sept 12 - 13, News, p. 5)

Koopman stated that one in 400 babies is born with both male and female reproductive organs.

If the baby develops with external female genitalia, but internal male gonads (testes), the presence of greater levels of testosterone produces a 'masculinised' skeleton and muscles, even while the genital appearance might present a vagina for external appearance.

Most intersex babies are born with genital ambiguity and are assigned male sex at birth (presumably, the clitoris is taken as a penis in such cases). But the extra rush of hormones at puberty sometimes produces secondary sex characteristics that confuse the assignation. Many are found to have a uterus and develop breasts at puberty and about half show evidence of ovulation. Caster's situation appears to have been the opposite.

No detailed descriptions of Caster's physical characteristics have been published in the press, but her ambiguous physiology has, once again, disturbed the rigid polarity that divides the sexes neatly in two and caused much consternation, not only for her family (and the South African sports official who knew the results of testing before the event) but for sports journalists and ethicists who seem to need clear divisions rather than a continuum. Gender is more fluid than we are permitted to acknowledge, usually, but the stability of the entire moral universe requires these poles remain separate and distinct so that Otherness continues to divide us, rendering the opposites forever unreconcilable and unintegrated.

I welcome Caster Semanya's perhaps unintentional contribution to public discourse on these matters and hope that s/he doesn't suffer too much for her striking physical testimony.

Note that, BEFORE there is a separation into male and female, there is unity. Living East of Eden, as we do, according to the ancient myth, we need reminders that once upon a time beyond time we knew no separation. It is more than possible (some would say it is imperative) that we could recover wholeness by learning to integrate these polarities within out own psyche (even if our bodies have been assigned to one pole or the other) and reject the dominance of difference.