Friday, August 21, 2009

Is she a Girl... and does it matter?

Eighteen-year-old Caster Semenya is a South African woman who has just won the 800 meter world championships. But some people from other countries think that she looks like a boy and have demanded a gender test. Clearly this is not about genital appearance. Many have attested that she has the external makeup of a girl.

So I wondered what makes someone a “girl”: Is it general looks? But what appears feminine in one culture is not feminine in another! Is it the ability to bear children? But not all women can bear children! Is it the way she dresses? But clothing is such a subjective preference – and many women choose to wear trousers, and many men have worn kilts into battle!

Some scientists have suggests that the issue at stake is “Sex”, and not “Gender. Dr Ross Tucker writes that “Gender refers to how an individual portrays and perceives him or herself---for example male or female. It is more of a social construct than a biological one. Sex, on the other hand, is biological, and that is the essence of the debate in this case, whether or not Semenya is of male or female sex, not gender.” He points out that it is possible to look like a female externally, while carrying predominantly male chromosomes. But I ask whether chromosomes should be the determinant anyway? Are social relationships and self perception automatically inferior to science? There are no easy answers to this!

What I have found particularly distasteful about the whole Semenya episode is the way it feels. It appears to an outsider like me that some white European officials felt that she did not look like a girl. I wonder if they feel the same about Stephanie Brown Trafton, winner of the Olympic women's discus, or shotput’s Jillian Camarena. These are very powerful, very square, but very Western Women. Or is it only the women of African Bantu extraction that are deemed to look male?

Perhaps as Christ-followers we need to remember that the way we are is absolutely OK. Whether we are clearly identified in terms of gender, or whether our human characteristics are to be found in the grey areas of chromosome confusion and transgendered identity, we are loved by God. Let us refuse to be amongst those who seek to determine the worth of a person based on their gender. Scripture reminds us that every person is lovingly created by God to be exactly as they are:
Psa 139:13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”


Cecilia said...

Pete, you have articulated well many of my anxieties around this event. The issue of western eyes gazing upon and judging this african woman is particularly troubling.

Thank you for raising this issue.

bro said...


Steve Hayes said...

The confusion about whether someone is male or female seems to be surpassed by the confusion about sex and gender.

According to her parents Caster Semenya has tended to be masculine by gender, even though female by sex. But that seems to apply to many female athletes, and many of them seem to have a higher proportion of male hormones when compared with most females.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you addressed this. I feel the same way you do - it's ridiculous and embarrassing even to me that it's an issue. I can only imagine how it feels to her. To me it just seems like a case of bad sportsmanship. Can't they just accept the fact that she won?