The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The scrutiny of Caster Semenya’s body fits into an ugly pattern

South Africa's Caster Semenya runs to the finish line to win the women's 1500-meter final at Carrara Stadium during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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On Wednesday, Olympic champion Caster Semenya lost her case against the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). When reporting on the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision, which upheld the IAAF’s right to discriminate against athletes with differences of sex development (DSD), Fox News incorrectly — and tellingly — identified her as a “transgender runner.” In reality, Semenya is a cisgender woman who has naturally elevated levels of testosterone — a fact that has led to heightened scrutiny of her body and performance for more than a decade, culminating in Wednesday’s ruling that she would have to undergo a medical intervention to continue competing at an international level.

Semenya’s gender identity was similarly misrepresented by the outlets that followed Fox’s lead, and commenters and pundits celebrated the decision on the grounds that a “man” had been successfully kept out — a slip that reveals how such pseudoscientific, selectively enforced standards around “real” womanhood hurt all women, cis and trans alike.

Semenya’s case — and the response to it — foregrounds an ongoing attempt to restrict, delimit and otherwise define women’s bodies. Many are already suffering as a result of this heightened policing of biology and behavior. Women who don’t conform to gendered expectations are being hounded out of bathrooms and other public spaces, just as athletes like Semenya and Indian sprinter Dutee Chand are being pushed out of arenas in which they have every right to compete — all in the defense of an increasingly narrow conception of womanhood.

Seeking scientific explanations for trans identity could do more harm than good

Semenya has become a proxy for transphobic animus, but her treatment also reflects a long history of racism and misogyny. Black women from Serena Williams to Michelle Obama have had their gender presentation (and, indeed, their gender) questioned: The tennis star is frequently attacked on the basis of her looks and singled out for drug testing, while the former first lady was targeted by far-right conspiracy theorists who pored over footage of her public appearances for “proof” that she was a man. And where white male athletes are celebrated for the biological flukes that make them exceptional (Michael Phelps’s preternaturally low lactic acid production and joint hyperextension are treated as assets), Semenya’s hyperandrogenism is seen as something to be corrected at all costs. Phelps was “built to be a swimmer”: a preordained Olympian whose anatomy only affirms his right to compete and excel. Yet according to the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling, “Discrimination [against athletes with differences of sex development] is a necessary, reasonable, and proportionate means … of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”

Like the fearmongering around bathroom bills, this perceived threat to the “integrity” of female spaces is based on a fantasy. Trans and intersex women do not disproportionately dominate sports when allowed to compete alongside cis women. The handful of trans “world champions” who’ve become talking points on the right won events for women older than 35; none has broken overall world records. And 15 years on from the Stockholm Consensus, in which the International Olympic Committee first established criteria for their inclusion, no openly transgender athlete has ever competed in the Olympics.

Crucially, the assertion used to justify “sex testing” — that testosterone levels are the determining factor in athletic achievement — is also tenuous, at best. As Myron Genel, an endocrinologist and professor emeritus at Yale, noted in an interview, “There is an appalling lack of actual physiological data that compares performance in any sort of authoritative way that relates to sex hormones.” A 2017 review conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School concluded that “it remains unclear whether endogenous hyperandrogenism … confers any competitive advantage” — and even the CAS admitted to a “paucity of evidence” to justify some of the IAAF’s proposed restrictions, though it went on to approve them anyway.

Do transgender athletes have an edge? I sure don't.

This overvaluation of testosterone also exposes the hypocrisy (and logical inconsistency) at the heart of so much transphobic rhetoric. Anti-trans activists often argue that medical transition can never supersede “biological sex” as dictated by genitalia. According to this line of thinking, hormonal therapies and surgeries like those undergone by many trans people are a needless hazard or extravagance that can’t negate the sex they were assigned at birth. As a result of this ruling, however, only the kind of treatment transphobes have consistently dismissed will allow Semenya to meet the threshold for her own gender. All this despite the fact that she’s far from a “biomechanical freak of nature” in the way that Phelps is. To the contrary, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of women share her condition.

To see such restrictions on “real” or acceptable womanhood reified by the likes of the IAAF is concerning. Allowing institutions to impose arbitrary definitions of sex and gender — often excluding women of color, trans women and intersex women in the process — flies in the face of science and basic human dignity alike. And despite alarmist claims about “the death of women’s sport” if trans or intersex athletes are allowed to compete, a policy that licenses discrimination against some for the paternalistic “protection” of others is by no means a feminist victory. The suggestion that there is one right way to be a woman and a limit to what one can achieve is both a threat to their bodily autonomy and an insult to their abilities.

As Semenya said simply when she first issued her challenge to the IAAF regulations, “I am a woman and I am fast.” The governing body would do well to stop fighting the fundamental truth and power of that statement.