I was recently made aware of an elite athlete and the controversy that surrounded her, so I did some research. While I tend to avoid controversial issues, this piqued my interest.
Until that day in late-February, I had never heard of Olympic athlete Caster Semenya. I’m not exactly a sporting person. It was while I was talking to a friend that I was made aware of who Semenya was and the controversy that has dogged her since 2009. Caster Semenya was born with testes, no penis just testes. In all other physiological aspects, she is female. She was raised as a female; she identifies as a female, but her body produces an elevated level of testosterone. She is 5’10” (178cm) tall; she has a muscular build; a prominent jawline and she is South African.
In 2009 at the age of 18, Semenya competed in the athletics World Championship where she won gold in the 800m in a time of 1:55.45, the fastest time of the year. The time was more than eight seconds faster than her best time from the previous year, which is considered somewhat astounding in the circles of elite athletes. It then prompted the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to request Semenya undergo ‘sex verification’ testing. While the test results were never publicly released, there was some information leaked to the press that lead to claims about Caster Semenya being intersex.
Unfamiliar with the term myself, I learned that intersex people are born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies”.
After everything I had read, I started to think about this woman. She had been born, atomically different from an ‘atypical female’. She was born in a country where she excelled against all odds. Now she is being victimised by the IAAF, other female athletes and the media (to some degree) because she is ‘different’. I can only feel an enormous sadness.
My sadness is not just for Caster Semenya, but for all the other people born ‘different’ in this world. Those who have different sexual orientations; those who are born in a male/female body, but identify as the opposite. Then I felt grateful at being female with all the ‘correct’ females bits and pieces, with a body clearly identifiable as female and a sexual orientation that only allows me to get enthusiastic about the male counterparts.
I began to feel such empathy for those who don’t meet the ‘norm’. How difficult must it be for them. How challenging it must be for them to establish their own identity. How difficult it must be for them to have others accept them for ‘who’ they are. ‘I am a woman. Hear me roar’, but for those men and women, how can they ‘roar’ when they have such criticism to face?