The Bigotry of the Binary: The Case of Caster Semenya

Who today remembers the 1965 song from those one-hit wonders, The Barbarians -- a little anti-hippie ditty called "Are you a Boy, or Are you a Girl?" "Well you may be a boy," they sang, "but you look like a girl," capturing the cultural anxiety about the androgynous blurring of the boundaries of gender by the four moptops from Liverpool.

I'd like to recommend a serious listen to that song by the International Association of Athletics Federations as this week's homework assignment. The IAAF is currently conducting a medical evaluation of Caster Semenya, the fleet South African runner, who raced far ahead of her field at the World Championships in Track and Field being held in Berlin.

The 18 year-old Semenya now faces a battery of tests -- physical, endocrinological, psychological -- and probing by gynecologists, internists, and gender specialists to determine if she is "female enough" to compete as a woman.

She was accused, by one of her rivals, of actually being a man -- which is the criterion for ordering the battery of tests. The bitterly disappointed Italian runner, Elisa Cusma, who finished sixth behind Semenya, said "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man."

Note Cusma's choice of pronoun. She may be more prescient than she knows.

For the results of Semenya's tests, which will be released in the next few weeks, will probably be inconclusive and contradictory, finding some evidence of biological femaleness and biological maleness. Whatever else, though they will reveal that nature is a far messier affair than the categories that we humans invent to make sense of it.

We like to believe that the entire world is sorted into discrete categories, male and female. This is what is known, in academic circles, as "the binary," the assertion of categorical difference. All biological creatures can be sorted into one or the other category, with no overlap.

We refer to the evidence of our senses -- seeing is believing -- various physical arrangements (genetics, anatomy, brain chemistry, horomones), and even refer to a more scriptural assertion. Yet each of these foundational sources is more ambiguous than we might at first think.

Consider the Bible, that touchstone of binary thinking. The very first time people put in an appearance, it's gendered. "Male and female created He them" was the ungrammatical but somehow authoritative way the King James Bible puts it in Genesis (1:27). And this has always been a justification for a divinely-ordained binary division between males and females.

But how can we be so sure? After all, it doesn't say "male or female" -- as if one had to be only one and not the other. In fact, it might even mean that "He" created each of us as "male and female" -- a divinely-inspired androgyny. And remember, Eve doesn't put in an appearance until the next chapter, after the male and female were created.

Our senses are less than reliable as well. How many times have we been fooled? Contemporary literature from M. Butterfly to The Crying Game is strewn with successful cases of cross-dressing, transvestism, and memoirs by the transgendered. It's more often the case that believing is seeing.

The gender binary is a convenient cultural fiction; nature is not nearly so obliging. About 1 out of every 1600 Americans is born "intersexed" -- that is with genetic, anatomical or other conditions that render simple classification impossible. That's nearly 200,000 Americans.

And that doesn't begin to capture all those who fall elsewhere besides the middle and the two end points on nature's grand gender continuum. "For 99 percent of the population, it's easy to determine," said Dr. Richard Auchus, a one medical specialist on sex differentiation disorders. "But one percent of the population that make it not so straightforward." That's one in a 100, not one in 1600 -- 30 million Americans.

For example, some biological males, who are anatomically, chomosomally and endocrinologically "correct," are born "microphallic" -- that is, with a tiny penis. Routinely, they have surgically "corrected" at birth by surgeons who are certain that the shame of being so tiny would far outweigh the potential future discomfort of having a surgically created vagina. They become "female."

Sociologists have long argued for a conceptual difference between sex and gender. Sex referred to biology, the different anatomical characteristics of maleness or femaleness. Gender referred to the culturally-derived behaviors, attitudes and traits that were held to be appropriate to each biological sex. That is, sex was male and female, gender was masculinity and femininity.

But even this binary has been steadily eroding. Of course, some will try and shore up this dissolving sand castle, with assertions about Mars and Venus, or reference to categorical differences in brain chemistry, chromosomal arrangements, or reproductive hormones. But the empirical evidence continues to push decidedly in the other direction. Both sex and gender turn out to be social conventions.

It's interesting politically that these controversies almost always arise not when someone of ambiguous biological sex seeks to compete against other males, but always when they compete against other females.

When all the tests are concluded, a panel of scientists and experts will evaluate and weigh the evidence and decide is Semenya is male or female. The tests will almost certainly be inconclusive, and panelists will disagree with each other about the relative weights to be assigned to specific tests. That is, in the end, Semenya's biological sex will not be decided by nature, but by a social process of deliberation among mere mortals.

As it always is. Our gender identity is a product of a social performance: we perform for an audience, and they decide whether we have offered a credible performance by treating us in a manner that we assume is appropriate to that gender. For her part, Caster Semenya identifies as a woman, presents herself as a woman, has trained as a woman, and lives her life as a woman. And so she is.

Even some of her rivals get it, albeit unwittingly. "Just look at her," complained Mariya Savinova, the Russian runner who finished fifth in the race. Savinova used the correct pronoun, as she referred to that sleek beautiful blur who had just streaked past her on the track.