Would Jamaica have added an eighth gold medal to its haul at the recently concluded World Athletics Championships if Caster Semenya had been a Jamaican? Semenya’s victory in the Women’s 800 metres was called into question because the athletic authorities had requested (demanded?) that she undergo testing to determine her sex.
For many people, the conclusions that they had drawn based on her physical appearance were confirmed by news reports that her body is producing three times the amount of testosterone as the average woman. Semenya is a man!
Here in Jamaica the cartoonists, commentators and talk show hosts have been having a field day. One cartoonist caricatured her name – Si-man-ya! A commentator admits that she might be a woman, but not one that he would take out on a date. (The arrogance of his assumption that she would want to go anywhere with him escapes him of course.) A talk show host shows off his knowledge of Latin to suggest that there might be a subliminal message about her sex in her name: Semen-ya = semen = male.
Given the dominance of conservative religious ideas in Jamaica at the present time, it could be something of a challenge to find people willing to discuss much less accept the idea that defining one’s sex is not a simple matter. But an even cursory investigation produces credible information that many societies have long recognised that the binary definition is not appropriate. As Dr S. F. Ahmed, a consultant in paediatric endocrinology at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, Scotland, states, “It is one thing to have a vulva, vagina, clitoris, breasts, ovaries, but it may be quite another thing being female, feminine, or a woman.” It seems that we have to acknowledge that there is a continuum of embodiment, and while the majority may tend more to one end or the other, there are those who occupy spaces closer to the middle.
Scholars have identified early creation myths in which a person with neither male nor female sex was created to “serve the King”. Ancient Asian and Latin American societies have deities that have both or neither sets of genitalia. Some theologians have suggested that the Ethiopian eunuch whom Phillip encountered was not a man who had been castrated (the common definition of eunuch), but was instead a member of this “third sex”. The existence of intersex and transsexual persons in eastern Africa including southern Ethiopia has been documented.
But persons of ambiguous sex are not just the subject of myth or scriptural exegesis. In recent times, occupants of this space between male and female have been identified in countries as diverse as India which has millions of such persons called the Hijra; in Samoa where the Fa’afafine (featured in a recent BBC documentary) seemingly male children are raised as females and perform domestic roles in the family. Here in the Caribbean, there are the Guevedoche of the Dominican Republic. These persons appear female at birth, but with the onset of puberty develop male organs. Many continue to identify as female.
What we do not realise is that every year intersex children are born here in Jamaica. What we also do not sufficiently appreciate is that being intersex is only one of several distinctions that exist in the fields of sex, gender and sexual orientation, that these three are separate constructs and that science cannot definitively say what makes us ‘male’ or ‘female’, nor what determines same or other sex attraction.
If the ambiguity is evident at birth or in early childhood, surgery and possibly hormone therapy are routinely provided. If the ambiguity emerges later in life, such as happens in the Dominican Republic similar actions might be taken. Some girls having undergone surgery go on to form heterosexual relationships and bear children. But reports from other countries indicate that the result of sexual assignment surgery is not always positive. In some instances the child comes to adulthood with a different gender identity to that assigned by doctors (who intervened based on what they found to be the dominant characteristics). It is not easy to undo that which has been done in early childhood, especially if male genitalia have been removed. Interestingly, it seems as if the female is the “default” version for all of us; male characteristics only emerge several weeks into the development of the foetus.
Perhaps even more painful is the experience of those children who are born with these characteristics who are locked away at home because of their parents’ shame, fear or desire to protect them from the prying eyes of a gossipy and superstitious community. A lack of understanding makes them objects of derision when they emerge in public. Some play on the public’s voyeuristic tendencies and earn a living by exhibiting themselves.
What is sure is that there are very few persons in Jamaica competent to provide information and advice to parents and young persons facing these issues. The ethical question of the child’s right to participate in decision-making about such a life changing matter – which implies at least delaying surgery, does not appear to have become part of the discourse even among this small group of professionals, and the early surgical intervention approach seems to predominate.
I wonder if Senator Hyacinth Bennett was aware of any of this when she demanded that the new Sexual Offences Bill give no protection from rape and any other form of sexual assault to persons who have had sex-change operations. One would have expected an educator to demonstrate some minimal understanding of the complexity of the issues of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Even if we disapprove of a particular set of sexual behaviours, those who occupy positions of leadership need to be careful that these opinions do not result in a failure to ensure that we act on the basis of factual information rather than on the basis of prejudice or belief.
This is particularly important in light of the fact that those who for whatever reason appear to be other than ‘normal’ are among the ones most likely to be subject to violence, including sexual violence.
Given the foregoing, it is unlikely that if Caster Semenya were Jamaican, we would have added an eighth gold medal to our tally. The news reports state that her parents affirm that she was raised as a girl although she was always considered a ‘tomboy’. Can you imagine a similar Jamaican child’s parents being willing to be interviewed in the national and international press? Even if they were not ashamed of their child, they would be fearful of the backlash from their community and would therefore remain silent.
It will be interesting to see what happens if the authorities determine that Semenya is in fact more male than female, and that this is due to no conscious action on her part or on the part of those associated with her athletic career. Producing more testosterone than usual for a woman is not a definitive sign of masculinity by the way, since it is possible for the body to produce this hormone but not be able to use it. The International Association of Athletics Federations had abandoned the wholesale use of sex verification tests in 1991 because it realised that they were not completely reliable.
A recent edition of Sports Illustrated on-line reports that in a similar case an athlete who had lived her life as a woman, but who was stripped of the medal she won at the 2006 Asian games, tried to commit suicide.
In the meantime, rather than going home in shame, as would probably have been the case were she Jamaican, Caster Semenya returned to the warm embrace of family, village and nation. What she does from here on remains to be seen.
All this should not be surprising since South Africa is the first country in the world to provide constitutional protection from discrimination for persons of different sexual orientations and is reported to be willing to grant asylum to persons who fear persecution on the grounds of sex, gender or sexual orientation. Gender reassignment surgery is available and openly performed, and people are able to change their personal documents, e.g., passports, to reflect a change in sex. While community attitudes are not always approving, South African legislators had the moral courage to recognise the legitimate rights of all its citizens.
Peta-Anne Baker is the co-ordinator of the Social Work Programme at the University of the West Indies, Mona. firstname.lastname@example.org.