August 21st, 2009
05:40 PM ET

Gender row athlete: What is intersexuality?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/HEALTH/08/20/gender.athlete.intersex/art.semenya.jpg caption="Semenya celebrates her gold, which came just hours after the IAAF called for a gender test on the athlete."]
Stephanie Busari

The case of South African athlete Caster Semenya has sparked worldwide interest following reports that she will be tested by sporting officials to determine whether she is male or female.

The 18-year-old won gold in the 800 meters race Wednesday but she may be forced to return the medal if she fails a gender-verification test imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

According to media reports, the IAAF are testing to see whether Semenya has a rare genetic disorder that means she has female genitalia but male chromosomes.

This condition, known as intersex, is commonly referred to as hermaphroditism. (Some support groups say that the term "hermaphroditism" can be inaccurate and offensive, as it implies that someone is both fully male and fully female, which is a physiologic impossibility.)

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Filed under: Gender and Politics
soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. capricorn717

    If she is intersex, she should keep the medal; if she is a trans-sexual the medal should be returned.

    August 24, 2009 at 4:26 am |
  2. Mark from Saint Louis

    Her name should be "Lola".

    August 24, 2009 at 1:35 am |
  3. Mark from Saint Louis

    Does this mean (s)he's asexual?

    August 24, 2009 at 1:34 am |
  4. KIm

    We are now testing for what ? You've got to be kidding ! Science to the extreme of questionable and ethically insulting of a great race and winner ! Congradulations and go win some more !

    August 22, 2009 at 11:36 pm |
  5. Alan Silverstein

    Every species has those who live on the margins... chill your homophobia and get to know her... I bet she is real cool – even if she can kick your rear end! So what... BFD!

    August 22, 2009 at 6:28 pm |
  6. Niceguy

    I hope she sues every single one of these moronic media houses/commentators who have been humiliating her and defaming her character this way in public. Even if she is intersex whatever that is, do you think that she, her coach or her family would have known that? I mean seriously, which athlete or person in their right mind really walks into a doctor's office and demands such a test anyway? is this a normal thing that people do anyway? I hope this is not going to mean a new requirement for athletes. Anywayz, the whole hullabulloo ofer this story is nuts anyway.

    August 22, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  7. SFGreek

    It brings up the larger problem of what constitutes male and what constitutes female–and why those criteria are used for the Olympics, as opposed to others. Should we look at the amount of "natural" testosterone? Just go by chromosomal makeup? Genitalia? You certainly can't go by how someone looks. It brings up the very complicated and difficult question of whether or not this is the best way to categorise athletes. It's seeming more and more simplistic and backward. I don't know what the best solution is, but what we have now isn't working for a lot of people.

    August 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm |
  8. David

    Well, to be absolutely honest, while watching the race, I did think to myself that the athlete in issue here looked more like a man than a woman. However it is not uncommon for me to encounter women with masculine features in sports, or in adversarial professions like law, and even in some very senior positions in the business world.

    But I tend to associate such masculine appearances in women with their ambition, drive, and determination to do whatever is deemed to be necessary to reach the top in their chosen field. Moreover, some women even practice speaking in a deep voice until they permanently lose their female voice because they think a masculine voice makes them sound more authoritative in a court house or in the boardroom.

    And, yet, although these women look masculine, sound masculine, and at times behave just like men traditionally do , their gender is never questioned by anyone or anything. And rightly so, too. If they have the anatomy of a woman, then this fact alone must certainly be and is always more than sufficient enough for them to have access to the "women only" facilities in public places. Afterall, a woman is only a woman because she is a woman, and not because of some little test.

    Therefore, by analogy, unless the IAAF had received sufficient, good, and credible information indicating that the athlete in issue here was or is in fact anatomically a man, they over-stepped the line of decency when they decided to impose a gender verification test. And they owe her an apology.

    August 22, 2009 at 10:23 am |
  9. Steve

    One could say she has set a new world record in the hermaphroditic category, this just might stick around for a while.

    August 22, 2009 at 4:36 am |
  10. Sara Ray

    So is the Olympic Committee going to create a new bracket for people who are intersex? Are they going to exclude them from being able to compete? It sure does raise alot of questions, but this WOMAN shouldnt have to pay the price. I hope that this story isnt publicized anymore, it makes me very sad for her.

    August 22, 2009 at 3:10 am |
  11. kamododragon

    I think that Caster Semenya could be intersex, but as an intersex person myself. I would have to wait for the test results to see what they say. That's because Caster Semenya could be intersex or could be a trans.

    August 21, 2009 at 11:30 pm |
  12. Lawrence Davies

    We lived in a society that encourages trans-gender or transsexual. I see no reason why we are now questioning the sex of this innocent black woman when we have seen people in sport as a man at one time and then as a woman at another. This is not strange but I know its definitely not the first time or last.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:32 pm |
  13. Janet

    Does she have Ovaries? Men will never have any, even if they had a sex change. Only a natural born woman.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm |
  14. Emily Hendricks

    Jack Cafferty's comments regarding this young woman, yesterday were quite hateful, and disappointing coming from someone from CNN. THIS GIRL NEVER INTENDED TO BE BORN INTERSEXED ,SO SHE SHOULDN'T BE SUBJECTED TO HATEFUL(DOWN RIGHT BIGOTED COMMENTS COURTESY OF MR. JACK CAFFERTY) REMARKS. HE OWES HER AN APOLOGY.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm |
  15. Emily Hendricks

    Did you hear Jack Caffertt's comment about her yesterday; hateful and insensitive.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:18 pm |
  16. Emily Hendricks

    Yesterday during the Situation Room, Jack Cafferty called the girl's story "creepy", and asked Wolf Blitzer if he thought she was a man or a woman. I personally think Jack Cafferty's remarks about this young woman were quite hateful, and insensitive. CNN tries to put out this politically correct image to the viewing public by featuring all of these ethnic(non-white) news anchors, but has proved it's quite hypocritical by allowing Jack Caffertty to get away with his remarks yesterday.
    This young woman never attended to be born intersexed, so no one should should hold it against her; they shouldn't call her creepy or rudely ask other people about what they think of her true gender the way Jack Cafferty did. I expected more sensitivity, maturity, and less hatefulness from CNN.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:15 pm |
  17. Riyaz

    Yes, I say that if she has lived her entire live as a girl/woman, then a woman she is.

    The gender examination is of no use.

    There is no point to it.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  18. Liz

    If she has lived her life as a female, she's done nothing wrong. She's done the best that she can with what she was born with. Leave her alone.

    If she has male chromosomes, she does not have an unfair advantage over women. This is 2009, not 1952.

    August 21, 2009 at 8:57 pm |
  19. Jeez

    There are a lot of conditions and syndromes that fit under the term 'intersexuaity'. I think you're saying they're testing her for Androgen Insensitivity but there are a number of possibilities. Either way, it totally sucks for her. It's not her fault she was born like that, not everyone fits in the gender binary, and kicking out the ones who don't is unfair. Are they supposed to not compete because they don't belong in only one of two categories when it's obvious there are more than those?

    August 21, 2009 at 8:47 pm |
  20. Adam Mark

    Perhaps we can just come up with a whole new shebang like the hermaphrolympics, let's do the homolympics while we're at it and we can all just segregate ourselves right back into feudalism...

    August 21, 2009 at 8:37 pm |
  21. Mrs Nancy

    Seems to me that she's lived and trained as a female. It's not like she is trying to deceive (on purpose), as some have done with "performance enhancing".

    Leave her alone.

    August 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm |
  22. Zoe

    I say wear your sexuality proudly whatever that is... Without tryIng to
    flaunt it. Still taboo in many parts of the world including Asia.

    August 21, 2009 at 8:31 pm |
  23. ES

    Well, if it turns out that she is officially a male, then she will have to return it because he(?) would have had an unfair advantage in competing with only females in this race. However, if she is intersex, and has male chromosomes, how is the IAAF supposed to judge that? Would they take her/his(?) medal away...'cause I don't really feel like that would be right...that is not something she/he(?) could change. This story is pretty confusing.

    August 21, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  24. NurseThomas

    How embarrassing to have your personal business up for national discussion. Very sad.

    August 21, 2009 at 7:54 pm |
  25. Meg Hale

    Thank you for bringing up the terminology of "intersexuality". This is the first time I've heard it used in the media setting and it's something that needs to be addressed. If this young woman loses her title because she has male chromosomes, it would be a shame. But, it's high time this topic was addressed because there ARE intersexuals in all walks of life.

    August 21, 2009 at 7:53 pm |
  26. Annie Kate

    Seems like she is being discriminated against for something she can not help (if she does have this). She has lived her life as a female, is a female as much as she knows, trained as a female – let her compete as a female and without the invasive examinations – enough is enough already.

    August 21, 2009 at 7:51 pm |
  27. GF, Los Angeles

    If she is intersex, does that mean she loses her title and can't compete in either women or men competitions?

    August 21, 2009 at 6:41 pm |
  28. Donna Wood, Lil' Tennessee

    Uh-uh! She or he worked hard for that medal and should not be made to just give it back no matter what the test results. Good grief! Why is this news? Leave that poor woman/man alone!

    Donna Wood
    Lexington, Tennessee

    August 21, 2009 at 5:51 pm |