If it looks like a bloke …

Last week, a South African female runner who won the gold medal by a very clear margin (albeit because of a surge in the last minute or so) in the World Athletics Championships in Berlin had her gender questioned, as she has a rather deep voice and a masculine appearance, despite by all accounts having been raised as a girl and always identified as female. The suggestion is not that she cheated, but that she has some sort of genetic abnormality or hormonal imbalance which might give her a competitive advantage over other (typical) female athletes. This has led to a whole lot of clueless commentary by writers who don’t know what they’re talking about, and also a pointless accusation of racism.

I got the title for this post from a friend’s remark on Facebook: “if it looks like a bloke, if it talks like a bloke and if it runs like a bloke - it probably is a bloke!”. However, women’s voices sounding a bit like men’s, with or without any gender abnormality, is rare but it exists. I remember hearing Maya Angelou on Radio 4 (on Book Club, if I remember rightly) and noticing how masculine her voice sounded; I remember a phonecall from my sister’s female boss many years ago, and when she said who she was, I didn’t believe it because it sounded like a male voice. I even said to my sister, “this is some bloke saying he’s your boss!”, and the woman said, “oh, people always think I’m a fella on the phone” and at that point I knew she was who (and what) she said she was.

Of the many gender abnormalities or “intersex” conditions which may be at play here, the two best-known are androgen insensitivity syndrome and congenital adrenal hyperplasia. AIS is when a body is resistant to testosterone, and even if a baby has XY (i.e. male) chromosomes, the testosterone has no effect. Testosterone has a role in forming the male body in the womb as well as in developing the boy’s body into an adult male one, as well as in retaining energy and a man-like bearing later on. A “male” person with AIS ends up with a superficially feminine body, albeit usually without a womb (and therefore infertile), and will often look very feminine because the oestrogen they do produce can work without the influence of testosterone. There are complete and partial versions of AIS, with those affected with the latter becoming more likely to have ambiguous genitalia and slightly more masculine features.

CAH is a defect of the adrenal glands which sometimes produces masculinisation of a female body, and sometimes a girl with this condition will be raised as a boy until the mistake is realised later (this is less common than it used to be as identifying a baby’s real sex at birth when there is ambiguity is much easier now; the case of Lady Colin Campbell may be one of CAH and you may find a similar story here). If this is the case here, it may give her a competitive advantage as girls with CAH may be more masculine, more physical and more aggressive than other women. Unlike other women with intersex conditions, their reproductive organs are unmistakeably female and they usually have periods.

The tone of some of the coverage has suggested that there is much tittilation about this episode: Mark Lawson, in an otherwise well-informed opinion piece in last Friday’s Guardian, opined that “without being too indelicate about this, lycra running shorts and slow-mo HD television pictures show that if Semenya is a man, she is clearly no Linford Christie”. Other articles have suggested that women with intersex conditions have male and female reproductive organs, which they don’t — they have genitals that resemble one sex and reproductive organs (often rudimentary) of the other, or none.

Then there was Germaine Greer in last Friday’s Guardian who, it should be pointed out, has “form” when it comes to ill-informed attitudes towards intersex conditions and particularly AIS: a number of individuals associated with the AIS Support Group have corresponded with her about a section in her book, The Whole Woman, reproduced here in which she asserts that women with AIS develop “a masculine figure — broad shoulders, narrow hips, no waist, short legs — and progressive baldness and heavy facial hair”, none of which actually develops in the case of complete AIS. Greer’s position is (or at least was) that a woman is someone with XX chromosomes and nothing else, even though those with complete or most forms of partial AIS are always identified as female at birth, are brought up as female, could never resemble anything other than a female in body appearance or voice because of their resistance to testosterone, and don’t realise that they are anything other than a normal woman until they try to have sex or to have children.

In last Friday’s Guardian, Greer makes one of her usual side-swipes at transsexuals and then acknowledges that chromosome-based gender tests for athletes didn’t pick up a single case of a male athlete disguising himself as a woman in years, but did pick up abnormalities in women who didn’t know they had them, in at least one case disqualifying a woman unfairly (presumably Santhi Soundarajan). However, she ends her piece by suggesting that “people who don’t ovulate or menstruate will probably always physically outperform people who do”, apparently ignorant of the fact that some female athletes simply stop menstruating. Additionally, some women with high-level spinal cord injuries take medication to stop their periods because they cause dysreflexia, a potentially fatal blood pressure disorder which many people with such injuries are prone to, so perhaps this could be considered an unfair advantage in the wheelchair races. Greer does not suggest that such people be disqualified, as she grudgingly admits that such competitive advantages, even in people who are “mentally female and physically male”, are just a fact of life.

Those who knew her in South Africa, as already stated, are in no doubt that Semenya is female. Many think the controversy absurd, with one woman in her village saying, “she played with my girl. I’ve got no doubts. She wears panties”. She played football in an otherwise all-male team, and her team-mates remember that she would change away from the men on the team. Nobody disputes that she was a tomboy, that she never wore skirts after a certain age, and that she failed to develop breasts, which does suggest that there are medical reasons behind her masculine appearance.

Still, I find the race row that some have tried to make of this to be somewhat convenient and ridiculous also. This has nothing to do with white people judging a black woman based on white standards of femininity; anyone who looks at Caster Semenya and then at any image of a black African woman, such as those accompanying the above BBC article, will easily see that, regardless of her identity and upbringing, she does not look anything like them. There may be a stereotype of black women, particularly Afro-American women, being somewhat masculine compared to “dainty” white women (the author of What Tami Said notes that questions about the femininity of black women are nothing new, although as Mark Lawson pointed out, such questions about powerful white women are not uncommon either), but they always acted and dressed like women and to anyone not blinded by prejudice, their femininity was obvious. These days, you find many white women in the UK, particularly of the older generation, who have short hair and a somewhat boyish dress sense (and I am talking straight women here) who never wear a dress except when it’s too hot for trousers or on special occasions, something which is rare in Africa.

But you won’t convince someone determined to grandstand about race that this isn’t about race. However, this issue could perhaps have been dealt with rather more sensitively in South Africa, where perhaps any medical condition she has could have been treated before she went to Berlin, where she has faced the humiliation of questions about her sex and seeing the most intimate details about her life become a topic for worldwide discussion.

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