Caster Semenya: No one wins

This is a guest post by the recently permabanned from Twitter Claire Graham, aka @MRKHVoice.

In a judgement many people have been waiting for, the CAS has decided today that the IAAF is allowed to restrict testosterone levels in female runners. I’ve been asked to write something, in response to the Caster Semenya story, so here goes…My personal take is really summed up by the Brock Chisholm quote “No one wins a war. It is true, there are degrees of loss, but no one wins.” I’m going to try to explain why, with a potted history of Semenya’s case put into the wider political context in which it has occurred.

First, let’s look at what facts we know. Caster Semenya came to everyone’s attention in 2009 when, she won gold in the 800m at the World Championships in Berlin. It wasn’t just the win itself, but the fact that Caster had been, unwittingly, “gender tested” before the championships and those results were then leaked after her victory. I’ve never seen the leaked documents, but many people have claimed that they showed Caster had XY chromosomes and internal testes, along with hyperandrogenism. This seems likely true after today’s ruling. However, the IAAF continued to allow Caster to run. She went on to compete in other events, most noteworthy the 2012 London Olympic games where she won silver in the 800m (later upgraded to gold when, Russian athlete, Mariya Savinov was given a lifetime ban for doping violations and stripped of her gold medal).

Caster was not the only DSD athlete to be facing controversy around this time. In 2014, Indian athlete Duttee Chand was banned from competing after she was found to have “unnatural levels of testosterone”. Chand appealed this and the decision was made to allow her to run, along with the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspending the introduction IAAF rules requiring female athletes to take testosterone-suppressing medication. Meanwhile, Caster kept running, winning the 800m gold at the Rio Olympics. This time, however, athletes questioned the fairness of her competing.

Probably as a response to both the Semenya and Chand cases, the IAAF commissioned research, in 2018, which found that female athletes with high testosterone levels have a “competitive advantage”. The research itself has been criticised for its accuracy, impartiality and reliability. Nonetheless, the IAAF introduced new rules, later that year, for female runners with naturally high testosterone. Namely that female athletes, with high levels of testosterone needed to take medication to lower those levels in order to be able to compete. Caster appealed this decision, which brings us to the decision made by the CAS today.

The judgement, which found against Caster, itself is revealing. In order to explain why, it’s necessary to understand what seems to have been argued and what has been decided. The judgement explicitly states that these rules only apply to women with 46XY DSDs. This, therefore, suggests that the CAS sees more than just testosterone at play here. Hyperandrogenism can occur in 46XX women too, such as CAH, but also not just those with DSDs. Women with PCOS, for example, can have elevated testosterone levels. These women, however, are not included in the requirement to lower testosterone. The CAS have made a distinction between 46XX and 46 XY DSD women, or in laymen terms, those we would consider genetic females, and those we would consider genetic males. It is, therefore, inaccurate to say that the rule is solely about testosterone, genetics are also being considered.

It would be useful if the CAS could pinpoint what research is being used for this. There must be reasoning behind the distinction. As the only research we can point at (the IAAF commissioned research from 2018) is about hormone levels, not chromosomes, they must surely be working from other evidence that supports the premise that XY chromosomes + excess testosterone is what confers the advantage in DSD women. If we’re basing the decision on science, let’s have the science for us all to look at. That seems to be what is missing here, which makes passing comment on the fairness of the judgement about Caster, from a scientific perspective, impossible.

I think it’s probably useful to now put this all into a wider, political, context. While this debate over DSD athletes has been going on, so has the gender debate, including discussions surrounding trans participation in sport. Many trans activists argue that trans women should be able to compete in women’s categories on the basis of self ID. In other words, full bodied males should be allowed to race against women based on their reported sense of “gender”, without any need to undergo any form of medical transition. This, of course, has been met with solid criticism and opposition from women’s groups and female athletes. Like all things in the gender debate, anyone not towing the “trans women are women” line is ostracised and vilified. There must be complete capitulation and inclusion. Caster, herself, has often been used by the press as one of the faces of this debate. The two causes; the inclusion of trans women, and the rules surrounding 46XY DSD women, have therefore become inextricably linked. Intersex orgs have themselves not really helped with this, producing their own papers which argue for inclusion based on gender identity.

It’s hard not to imagine that the judges at the CAS are aware of all of this. They will also be aware that, overall, public opinion seems to be that it would be unfair to allow any male who self-declared themselves to be a woman, to compete in the women’s category without question nor proving that they do not have an advantage. This seems logical. If we’re arguing on the basis of inner feelings, would it have been fair, for example, for the gold medal winner of the men’s decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics to have been competed in the women’s pentathlon (as it was) instead? That is where the logical conclusion of inclusion based on self ID takes us.  

The CAS will also surely be aware that any decision which limits trans inclusion or asks questions like the one I just asked there, will be met with hostility and claims of “transphobia “. This has proven a powerful tactic for those involved in trans rights activism, silencing any research or suggestion that “acceptance without exception” may not always be fair to others. The Caster case is a good opportunity for them to stem those criticisms before they begin. The judgement against Caster cannot be deemed transphobic, as Caster is not trans, despite becoming the trans inclusion poster child. Nor, therefore, can it be deemed as transphobic when applied to trans women, as it affects other, non-trans, women too.

I can’t help but feel that, without reliable data and research on the inclusion of DSD women in women’s sport, Caster has become an unwilling pawn for both sides here, and in the end, no one has won. Hard-line women’s rights campaigners who want women’s sport keeping just for XX women lose because 46XY DSD women continue to be allowed to compete, as long as they lower their testosterone (it’s also worth noting that this rule only applies to middle distance track events, and some field events such as pole vault. There are no limitations on other events), trans activists lose because they cannot argue for inclusion by self ID while the CAS recognise testosterone as conferring an advantage. And, frustratingly of all, intersex athletes lose as they have been paraded and prodded and politicised by all sides, to the point of exclusion without seemingly a fair trial.

25 Replies to “Caster Semenya: No one wins”

  1. I don’t really agree with some of this. I think the essential point that’s being missed is that the CAS has in effect determined Semenya to be biologically male, on the grounds that she has both a functional SRY gene and significant androgen response. I find myself in agreement with this, having independently come to the same conclusion in recent weeks.

    How do we define the binary of sex in the face of the constant “but teh intersex!” whine from the TRA lobby? They’re right that a simply XY/XX split is insufficiently discriminative in that it throws up some very clear misallocations. We need a better measure.

    In my opinion basing this on the presence or absence of a functioning SRY gene and functioning androgen receptors is the best approach. No SRY gene, definitely female. SRY gene but no functioning androgen receptors, also female (CAIS) – although it appears that these women have a *marginal* edge in competition, possibly due to other effects of the Y chromosome. Functioning SRY gene and significant androgen response, male.

    This seems to be the thinking of the IAAF. Caster Semenya has a Y chromosome and nobody has suggested there is no SRY gene there. She also has significant androgen responsiveness – you only have to look at her to see that, and the fact that her performance allegedly drops significantly if she lowers her testosterone concentration artificially proves it. So by that metric, even though socially and legally she’s a woman, for the purposes of competition rules she is in fact biologically male.

    It’s true that a virilised XX woman with excess adrenal (or ovarian) testosterone production would be in much the same position practically speaking. The CAS seems to have confirmed that such a woman would *not* be required to lower her testosterone, because she is a woman. But Semenya is not in that category. It’s very hard on her, because she didn’t choose to be put in this position, but the ruling is in my opinion entirely logical and entirely fair.

    In effect, in this particular context, Semenya, a biological male, is being given the same exemptions as other biological males who want to compete in women’s events. She is reaping the advantage of the inclusion of transwomen in women’s sports, and being allowed to compete as a transwoman.

    The case is full of paradoxes. In trans-speak Semenya would be considered to be “cis”, because her gender identity matches the identity she was “asssigned at birth”. But in fact both of these identities are discordant with the actual biological sex of her body. You might say she is an “afab transwoman”!

    It’s obvious she has always been sensitive about this. She gets very upset if anyone accuses her of being a man. But she and her advisors must have known she was XY with what appears to be PAIS. Her actual genotype has been kept secret for many years. Surely it would have been better for her if this case had never been brought. If she’d just accepted the ruling and reduced her testosterone she could have continued to keep her genotype secret. Now, however, her XY genotype is public knowledge, and the unkind people who called her a man may consider themselves vindicated.

    I sadly fear the SA athletics authorities were far too keen to have the star runner on their team and didn’t want her pulled back by having to lower her testosterone. They pulled the “racist” card and the “discrimination” card and tried to browbeat the CAS. It didn’t work, and the principle victim of all this is poor Caster Semenya, who must be suffering horribly at present.

    But the victory has been for the biological sex essentialists. Semenya is in the category of biological male and has to compete under the rules that govern biological males in women’s sports. A biological female with a similar endocrinological advantage will not be penalised because she is a bona fide female. I’m very encouraged by this.

    1. The problem with this argument is that even an SRY rule would provide some males with access to women’s sport. There are sry negative XX males, who would slip through the net and also have an unfair advantage over women in sport. The question of DSD participation is that there will never be a one stop solution that captures all possibilities. This is why I have always said that DSD inclusion cannot be discussed with trans inclusion. It needs it’s own discussion where we can look at each condition and how they fit in with our understanding of fair play.

      1. I don’t disagree with that at all, but we have to work with the tools that we have. If a definition is imperfect it can be refined and improved so that eventually it meets your requirement for considering each condition and applying the constraints of fair play. In this case, though, I think the system worked and Caster was dealt with correctly and fairly.

        It’s just a tragedy for her that the SA athletics authorities didn’t allow this to be confronted at the start of her career, I believe because they wanted to retain the star runner on their team and realised that she’d be disqualified if her true condition was acnowledged. Back in the 1970s she would definitely have been disqualified as soon as she was tested. It happened to other people.

        In an ideal world maybe DSD athletes would be considered in isolation from the trans debate, but we don’t live in an ideal world. The fact is that Caster Semenya is permitted to compete as a woman only because of the concessions which have been granted to transwomen, so it’s relevant.

  2. So sad to see you banned from twitter I have always found your arguments to be well balanced and sympathetic and this article on CS is a fine example of that. I have nothing to add to this discussion as it’s a bit above my pay grade. I will always remember you kindly taking the time to answer some fairly dumb questions of mine. I hope common sense prevails and you are allowed a reprieve soon.
    Thanks

  3. What I found particularly frustrating was learning today that these rules that the IAAF want to bring in will only apply to people with XY chromosomes, those with XX are allowed whatever variations that nature and genetics gives them. And even more frustrating was that I only learned that from reading the CAS press release. If you look at just about any written news report there’s no mention of the XX/XY distinction, just bland statements that lead you to wrongly believe that the restrictions on testosterone levels apply to all women.

    So what’s the story behind this? Have no sports journalists actually bothered to read these controversial new rules? Given that this is one of the biggest stories of the past few years, that’s hard to believe, but on the other hand there have been lots of job cuts and redundancies in recent years. Or do they know all about the XX/XY distinction, but are keeping quiet for other reasons of their own.

    I’m annoyed because I’ve been happy to defend Caster for years because I assumed that she was an XX woman with some sort of freakish physiology that made her run fast. No different, I argued, from the freakish genetics that gave Michael Phelps size 14 feet. But now it looks like ‘she’ was actually a man all along, albeit with some DSD, I’ve been feeling particularly pissed off with the press for quietly concealing this important little detail. We’re not talking sodding quantum physics here, this is GCSE level Biology stuff.

    1. I’m in the same position as you. I naively dismissed the (very suspicious) point that Semenya’s advisors refused to state what her genotype was, assuming this was simply to protect her privacy. In hindsight it’s obvious that if she’d been XX they’d have sent the karyotype picture to the sodding newspapers. But I assumed that all the “she’s a woman” stuff meant that she was actually XX with a virilisation syndrome, presumably androgens produced by the adrenals. And on that basis I, like you, vocally defended her right to compete with whatever nature gave her.

      I think she has been horribly used by the SA authorities. It causes her great distress to be referred to as a man, but this revelation will embolden those who throw that at her. They would have known this was a probable outcome, but they went ahead anyway in the hope that they could browbeat the CAS into treating her as female with allegations of racism and discrimination.

      The big win here seems to be that the CAS has explicitly stated that XX women (presumably excluding those with an SRY gene on an X chromosome, because such individuals are male) will be allowed to compete with what nature has given them, even if that includes adrenal hyperandrogenism.

  4. This piece is a reminder why everyone is missing you so much on Twitter, Claire. Fingers crossed that your appeal succeeds and you’re reinstated asap. I feel as if the average IQ of Twitter has dropped by about 10 points globally. Just wanted to say Hi and wish you all the best xx

  5. Good to see you again Claire, I hope you are ok, I have missed your voice and your presence on twitter. We are the poorer for your absence. Thanks for this contribution.

  6. Hey Claire! Great article! Really miss you around Twitter, and I’d love to stay in contact with you. If you see this comment and want to keep in touch, please email me at colinuniversity at gmail dot com

    I hope your account gets reactivated. Twitter is a less fun and much less reasonable without you there!

    All the best,

    Colin

  7. Thank you for writing this, Claire. I really miss you on Twitter, especially yesterday. So I was very happy to read your nuanced and well-informed take on this issue here. Like some other commenters I found myself conflicted, as I had been advocating for Semenya’s right to be viewed and treated as a woman, in the belief that she was a woman with a DSD. When I read she has XY chromosomes I was confused. I’ve concluded that I don’t know enough about DSDs to have an opinion on Semenya’s sex, and it makes me uncomfortable to state such a thing. Like you say, Semenya is obviously a pawn in a much larger issue. It’s clear that being intersex is something very different from being transgender in that it’s an innate physical condition, and few people genuinely and knowledgably advocate on their behalf. I hope to see you back on Twitter so you can continue to do that.

  8. I don’t understand why you refer to “46 XY DSD women” when that should be “46 XY DSD men”. Also why the media are still referring to Semenya as a “female athlete”. Semenya has a Y chromosome, testicals (yes they are internal, but they are still there, still secreting testosterone, still made Semenya go through male puberty). Semenya has no female sex characteristics whatsoever as far as I know. Why would Semenya have any female sex characteristics when they do not have XX chromosomes, no ovaries to secrete female hormones etc? Women are not simply people without penises. Just because Semenya did not have a penis, that does not make Semenya a ‘woman’. Like Morag and Jim I feel utterly duped by the false and inaccurate language used by media and sporting bodies who are coy about using factual terms. Semenya is quite clearly a MALE with a DSD. I am genuinely confused why you would use the term “46 XY DSD women” when surely someone with the Y chromosome is a man (especially if they have testicles which are secreting testosterone, facial hair, have gone through male puberty etc). All this sugar-coating uncomfortable facts has got us to the crazy place we are now it, where we cannot tell the truth and state facts

    1. Hi, it would be inaccurate to refer to 46XY DSD women as men, as that is not a fair description of the conditions we are talking about here. There are some 46XY DSDs that are classed as men/male, such as persistent mullerian duct syndrome. Cases like CAIS and some PAIS people are classed as female, as they are technically observed as such at birth, like other women. They are born with a vagina and would appear no different to the rest of us. This means they are also raised with female socialisation, along with all the issues that can bring. The condition doesn’t make itself obvious until they reach puberty and their periods do not start. As this is a traumatic enough experience, we do not ask them to reclassify themselves. For this reason, I’m a bit confused about you saying “they do not have any female sex characteristics”, while also acknowledging that they are born without a penis and testicles.

      1. This. Most of us don’t carry karyotyping equipment around with us to do chromosome scans on the fly. We decide whether we’re dealing with a male or a female based on secondary characteristics. Based on those traits, Caster Semenya has been treated as a woman all her life and, as someone said upthread, must continue to be treated as such socially and legally.

        But, as Claire says, the trans activists have put us all in the position of having to be super-careful about definitions to avoid gaping loopholes for men to decide it would be a lot more fun to win prizes in the women’s competitions than to slog away at the back of the men’s. Caster has been treated very badly in a fight that’s none of her choosing.

      2. But Semenya does *not* not have complete androgen insensitivity (CAIS), and developed as a boy/man – due to having internal testes and secreting normal levels of testosterone for a boy going through puberty. Semenya not only didn’t have periods but also never developed breasts. Not only that but instead their voice broke, they are male facial hair, and they developed a male physique! That’s what I mean when I say that Semenya does *not* have female sex characteristics, but instead has very obvious male sex characteristics – male facial and body hair, broken voice, broad shoulders etc. I suspect it has been known since puberty that Semenya was male but it has been very much to Semenya’s and the families and South Africa’s sporting bodies advantages to maintain this myth and to ‘shame’ and guilt trip anyone else with irrelevant detail about their poor origins. If you do a lot of reading about Semenya and the many interviews about Semenya’s childhood, they didn’t like girls, or play with girls. They played football. They’ve just had to maintain the pretence for years to keep the lolly rolling in.

    2. I presume that we do this because Semenya has physical markers of being female re her genitals and thus as a baby was assumed to be a girl. Thus raised as a girl and may not have known until she began running competitively that there was anything off about her femaleness. This is not unusual. I’ve certainly been called a TERF in my twitter life but I think it is reasonable to honor her childhood, and adult sense of self and call her female, while acknowledging her rare biology re sports rules.

      Though I remain torn about the decision. I think it is fair for the whole but unfair for the individual. I don’t know how to reconcile that.

      This happens though to bodies that are unusual in lots of ways. I have epilepsy and have increasingly strict driving restrictions placed on me. They do not take into account my personal situation with the condition. They make me very subject to the whims of an anonymous bureaucracy (and a fearful public). Yet nobody would suggest that my feelings on the subject, let alone my personal needs, outweigh any of that. Not even where it is unfair or poorly applied. And it so often is.

  9. This is excellent, and so balanced. It’s really helpful to get a more objective view on this really complex issue. Thank you

    1. Yes, I’ve just seen this. It certainly adds an extra dimension, especially in the context that intersex advocacy has campaigning against unnecessary medicalisation at its core. It seems impossible to campaign against that and then have certain areas where society demands it.

    1. I’m not sure “the old eye ball test” is appropriate. Caster is a lesbian and is married to a woman. I thought gay marriage was, you know, acceptable and something we all know about these days. I also think it’s really inappropriate to be using male pronouns for DSD women. I wouldn’t usually pronoun police in the gender debate, but, in this case, we are not talking about gender identity, but someone with a very complex medical condition.

      1. Claire, I was not suggesting that gay marriage is not an acceptable thing. Grew up in the LGB and was taught by my parents that het is not the only orientation. So I never had a sense that there was anything wrong with me or other LGB. However, I don’t see that this was a gay marriage. And I can’t see Caster as female or lesbian considering my fairly lengthy acquaintance with many.
        There is a lot of controversy surrounding him from the get go and this issue has come up time and again but weirdly the test results have never been released due to ‘confidentiality’. Caster has been known to run from this testing and has challenged the confidentiality issue.

        From all I’ve read Caster was not brought up as a girl and Caster’s parents contradict themselves over this. I realise that socialization isn’t the be all and end all of sex determination however this appears that Caster was more than a tomboy: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1208227/She-wouldnt-wear-dresses-sounds-like-man-phone-Caster-Semenyas-father-sex-riddle-daughter.html

        Seems there was more than one coverup going on here: https://web.archive.org/web/20181009153634/http://semenya.blogspot.com/

        There is also a lot of controversy around Caster’s marriage. Both Caster and dad denied that Caster was getting married and then Caster did.

        Then there were a lot of stories about Caster’s wife being pregnant two years ago but never a follow up on that.

        In addition I came across this video which is fairly sketchy but does seem to point out some strange behavior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKTKr2fk6Hw .

        As for pronouns, Caster is not here to listen to us. I will feel much more comfortable calling Caster she when actual evidence is finally released.

        There’s too much invested in Caster to see that that’s ever going to happen.

        (hope that I didn’t double post this!)

  10. “anyone not towing the “trans women are women” line is ostracised and vilified” – this is true, but the ostracism and vilification are aimed at those who do not TOE the line. That’s TOE, as in the thingies at the end of your foot. Nobody “tows” a line. The phrase comes from military training, where on Day One they teach you to stand in straight lines, usually with helpful painted lines on the pavement, yelling “TOE THE LINE PRIVATE” among other things. [/pedant]

    Well done, miss you on Twitter.

  11. I’m sorry Claire. I see no evidence that Caster is female or that he is a lesbian.

    How is it that a person with undescended testicles could be a woman? Maybe I don’t fully understand the condition.

    But this convinced me he is not female: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ao8GjMMttw

    Unfortunately after massive searching I can’t find anything to corroborate this.

    There is also this article which speaks to some major butt covering going on: https://mg.co.za/article/2009-09-18-semenya-saga-chuenes-trail-of-lies

    Caster having married a woman, is not evidence Caster is lesbian. Speaking to some other lesbians about it at the moment.

    Bottom line is there is a lot more going on here than what has been publicly released.

  12. I also agree that it was a fair decision in this one case, but it came much later than it should have. I feel compassion for Caster, as the SA sporting bodies have brought this on her and it should not have taken this long to resolve. I still believe no male should compete in women’s sports, they should have never been allowed in the first place.

    Personally, as purely a social courtesy, I have no issue with using feminine pronouns etc as Caster’s legal sex recognition – but, as a rare “special case” – because she was raised as a girl from infancy, and in some ways this supports the feminist concept of ‘gender’ being a social construct – but this does not make her female or a lesbian either.

    The body is male, without external male genitalia, but still with all the advantages that maleness gives, especially in the context of women’s competitive sports – Especially residual effects of male childhood, and obviously puberty – one of the differences between XX DSD females with hyperandrogenism, and XY DSD males, is the effects of both childhood and puberty in laying down initial male or female muscle patterns, bone length and density, lung capacity, red blood cell metabolism etc… and obviously training in childhood and adolescence would only enhance those sex differences. I think having different limits to XX females with hyperandrogenism, and XY males makes perfect sense. The androgens in XX females perform differently to XY males.

    I also support the decision of one of the US powerlifting associations that mentioned that having gone through a male puberty is a major deciding factors in refusing transgender males from competing in women’s competitions.

    I understand that there is a medical study in Australia? (not sure, I just heard it on a radio this morning) being performed by sports physiologists with transitioning transgender people to study physical performance changes before, during, and after transition.

    Given the politics, I am not hopeful that this study would give anything valid either- depending on the political bent of the researchers, the results can be moulded to fit whatever narrative is winning the political argument. As in the lack of ethics in the ongoing NIH study on transing drugs to children.

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