Caster Semenya Row Brings Gender Verification Process Into Question


Caster Semenya, 18, of South Africa has had her gender questioned. This week she won the 800 metres at the World Championships in Berlin. She was faster than her nearest competitor by 2.45 seconds.

When Semenya was born, she was christened and grew up as a woman. Though there are stories of her being told she looked like a boy even as a young girl, this time it has more serious consequences than children teasing each other.

Rule 113 of the International Assn of Athletic Federations (IAAF) gives them the right to ask any athlete to undergo gender verification. If found to be male, Semenya could be disqualified from competing and stripped of her medals.

Gender verification has a long history meant to make sure that no athlete had an unfair advantage by competing in the wrong field or with doping. There’s not a simple definition of gender to use as a gold standard. It’s not always as simple as using chromosomal verification of an X and a Y for men and two Xs for women.

What happens to those who don’t fit that nice simple definition? What happens to those with disorders of sexual development (DSDs) or intersex conditions?

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Disorders of sexual development arise from chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomic abnormalities in the pathway of sexual differentiation. Often the chromosomal sex does not match the physical sex.

There are many DSDs that could be an issue here. Intersex conditions are particularly challenging for women’s sport because they often involve excessive production of male hormones (androgens), which enhance muscle mass and cardiac capacity.

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) can lead to virilization of a female fetus due to excess androgen exposure. Ninety percent of CAH cases are caused by a 21-hydroxylase deficiency. People with this disorder are chromosomally female and usually identify as such, but have excessive testosterone levels because of a genetic mutation. They often have ambiguous genitalia and masculine musculature, but there is no reason not to class them as female.

People with a 5-alpha reductase deficiency, by contrast, are chromosomally male, but do not produce a powerful androgen. They are born with female genitalia and are usually raised as girls if the disorder is not identified.

The Woman’s Sports Foundation believes that “Pre-pubescent individuals with sex chromosome abnormalities who were assigned to the female gender (generally in infancy) and who were raised as females should be permitted to compete as females.”

Los Angeles Times
Woman’s Sports Foundation
Pediatric Care Online