Life in the shadow of gender

2009-08-29 00:00

MOST South Africans know that our 18-year-old female athlete Caster Semenya is in the throes of a cruel ordeal. Having won gold compellingly, her sex and right to compete are now in question. All depends on the outcome of “gender verification testing”. She is not suspected of impersonation or fraud. What drives it all is the suspicion that she is intersexed.

The intersexed are born with sexual differentiation at some physical level — chromosomal, balance of hormones in the body, internal structures of reproduction, the internal make-up of the gonads, and the external genitalia, or a mixture of some or all — which is not typical. Around a million South Africans are affected, most to a very small degree. Very few realise that their bodies are not perfectly “industry standard”, and this matters not at all.

Perhaps 100 000 are affected “big time”. For many, multiple genital surgery leaving both physical and psychological scars has been imposed from infancy. It is seldom needed to preserve physical health or life. What drives it is that obviously intersexed bodies are simply not deemed culturally acceptable. Secrecy and half-truths are often still standard medical practice in such cases, so that few patients get to know the truth about their bodies. A sense of dark secrets and shame, which blights lives, often result.

Semenya’s plight “pushes buttons” for me. Some 15 years back, aged about 40, I discovered that I am intersexed and made a conscious decision to be honest and open about it. As a direct result, I was ostracised, stripped of status and even identity, and forbidden to exercise my vocation. I was required to keep even my own family in ignorance of my circumstances and whereabouts. Even the faith that made it possible for me to survive all this was smothered with what I believe to have been malice aforethought. These things were done not because I had committed a crime or sinned, but because my body turned out not to fit neatly into the presumed binary divide between male and female. The unravelling of my life, standing, expectations and hopes was a witting and brutal display of power. The message: this is what happens to those with aberrant bodies.

Perhaps three years back I was carted by ambulance to a hospital emergency room. Like Semenya, I do not have a curvaceous feminine figure and have a fairly deep voice. Unlike her, I can pass for a beached whale. Be that as it may, I’m classified in law as born female because of evidence about the nature of my anatomy at birth. The ambulance-men knew I am classified as female, addressing me as “lovely lady” almost mockingly. Both they and medical personnel referred to me in my presence as “he” and “him” despite my requests that they not do this. I displayed my birth certificate and pointed out that in law I am female. This was ignored. Explaining that I am intersexed made it worse. The message was that they, the “experts”, determined who and what I am, whatever the consequences and would pull my life apart if it was expedient. Scary stuff: I knew at first-hand how easily the fabric of one’s existence can be unravelled simply because one is intersexed. In 1997, because of medical evidence that I am intersexed, I had to wage a 15-month battle for South African identifying documents. Until I finally won the battle, I ceased technically to be a human being in South African law, and know how little it could take to reverse my victory.

The way in which Caster Semenya’s sex is being questioned reminds me of my emergency room experience. A patriarchal sex-police claims the right to determine her very identity, regardless of the consequences for her. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the “gender verification process” is anything but objective and scientific. It is moot whether any intersex condition actually gives athletic advantage in the first place. Secondly, physical sex is a continuum rather than a neat binary. Thirdly, including psychological tests and a “gender expert” fluffs the crucial distinction between sex, which is physical, and gender which, as a social construct, is notoriously culture-relative and potentially oppressive. Should Semenya turn out to be intersexed, her life could be shattered. The ordeal assaults her human dignity and may well have left enduring psychological wounds already. There can be no justification for this.

Does being intersexed, and even the mere possibility that one is intersexed, really warrant this? Objectively, being intersexed should not be a big deal. The trouble is that intersexed bodies threaten a meme (to use Richard Dawkins’s term for the cultural equivalent of a gene) which is fundamental to the patriarchal nexus of power. The very existence of intersexed bodies challenges the notion that sex is a crisp and clear binary, and such bodies therefore threaten a deeply entrenched system. And so intersexed infants are sometimes killed, little bodies are standardly cut into cultural conformity, the lives of adults who are obviously intersexed are liable to be shattered, and the careers of athletes found to be intersexed are prone to be ended.

The support for Semenya from both people and government offers real hope that things can be different. Some of this support is dismissive of the possibility that Semenya is intersexed. She may well not be intersexed; but the point which people and government surely need to take to heart is that even if she is intersexed, it should not be a “big deal”. The intersexed are no less to be supported and protected against assaults on their human dignity than are people who are not intersexed. The people and government need to take up the plight of the intersexed no less vigorously than the cause of Caster Semenya. Government needs consciously to drive a process to ensure that the intersexed — infants, children and adults — are protected from assaults on their bodies, on their dignity as human beings and on other fundamental human rights.

• Sally Gross is the founder of Intersex South Africa. See

Click here to read the story of Sally Gross in these previous articles from The Witness in 2000 by Stephen Coan.

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