Beyond X and Y

Beyond X and Y

I was very sad to hear, earlier this week, that South African runner Caster Semenya had been placed on suicide watch. Semenya, as I'm sure most people are already aware, was determined by tests to be intersex after winning a gold medal in the 800 metre event in Berlin.

South African lawmaker Butana Komphela, chair of the country's sports committee, commented that: “If she commits suicide, it will be on all our heads. The best we can do is protect her and look out for her during this trying time.”

I hope that Semenya has supportive people around her at this terrible time and I hope that she can somehow come to the realization that the failure here is entirely ours and not hers. Every day we all walk through a world that insists on defining people according to X and Y chromosomes, as though there's some absolute meaning in this, a neat divide, as though possessing ovaries automatically imbues you with a nurturing spirit and compels you to worship the colour pink and adore shopping while having a penis makes you aggressive and forever bonds you to things like power tools and pro football.

And what do we have to say in response to these ludicrously small-minded ideas? Not a hell of a lot, mostly. Not enough.

Not only do binary ideas like the above create constraining behavioural expectations, they also exclude certain people from aspects of society entirely. No medal for you, they say. You don't belong here. You aren't either or.

Stats on babies born intersex aren't indicative of true numbers as “1 in 2000 infants is born with genitalia that are so atypical that the attending physician requests the help of the specialists in the team to assign a sex...[but] most hospitals in the world have no gender assignment teams and most intersex people have typical genitalia.” Apparently the real figure could be closer to 4%.

Isn't social exclusion and demanding that you attempt to adhere to one of the two approved genders awful enough without people pointing at you (now, thanks to the Internet millions upon millions of folks can do this without even leaving their homes), poring over the details of your ordeal while some of them are even ignorant and callous enough to call you a 'freak of nature'?

Just this morning I read that it's come to light that the governing body of athletics asked South Africa's top administrators for the sport to consider withdrawing Semenya before the race but that those officials declined without even informing her of the governing body's concerns.

To say this was handled badly all round is an understatement. This isn't entertainment—this is someone's life, her hope and dreams. We should be celebrating Caster Semenya's accomplishment in the world of sports and throwing our support behind her. If you feel the same, please write your support down where she, and others, will be able to see it—your blog, Twitter, Facebook, a message board, wherever.

Caster, my thoughts are with you.

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