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South African Olympic track and field athlete Caster Semenya lost her appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to stop taking hormone suppressants to control her naturally occurring high levels of endogenous testosterone. Semenya is diagnosed with Hyperandrogenism, a difference in sexual development (DSD), that see her body produce remarkably high levels of testosterone for a biological woman. It’s a stunning development in the controversy surrounding biological categorization and definition in the sport world. I empathize with Semenya because unlike many athletes at the Olympics, she did not seek out an exogenous substance or method to improve her performance. She did not take banned substances to give her an edge over her competitors. But even worse, Semenya’s position has now been taken up by activists on all sides regarding the inclusion of trans athletes in formal competition.
Those who believe women’s sport are endangered by the inclusion of trans women in competition seized upon the ruling to push their political agenda. Those who argue that trans women should be allowed to compete, regardless of their level of biological transition, are decrying the verdict as sexist and opening the door to further discrimination against trans athletes. The problem is that the Semenya case does not confirm either side, but it does confirm the difficulty in trying to pin down the complicated problem of fairness in sport over this issue.
To the anti-trans women participation crowd, Semenya is wrongly described as a transgender athlete. An entire segment on Fox and Friends incorrectly followed this path. In this false scenario, Semenya is seen as representative of men who try to game the system by transitioning in order to win medals and accolades that escaped them when competing against the same sex. But Semenya is not that person. To the pro-trans women’s participation crowd, this is a sign that the control of women’s bodies, and those who choose to identify as women, is still the name of the game in sport. It’s the gender verification testing issue played out all over again. Female athletes used to be subject to embarrassing physical examinations of their bodies to prove they were indeed female. But Semenya is not your ordinary female athlete. She is an atypical female with a diagnosed condition that does place her on the high end of the talent spectrum, especially for her sport of mid distance track and field running. Both sides want to use Semenya as their flag to wave, but she’s not their token. And her case says something against both sides.
The CAS ruling goes against the pro-trans women’s participation crowd by appropriately using biological metrics to determine eligibility in women’s sport. The fact there is no biological restriction against trans men who wish to compete (outside of local legal jurisdictions where competitors are forced to compete as their sex assigned at birth) testifies to this reality. There are biological factors in sport performance. Testosterone is one hormone that is linked in part to athletic performance. In the 1970s, Communist countries, best exemplified by East Germany, pumped their female athletes with many performance enhancing drugs, including Testosterone. These female competitors trounced the competition and made a mockery of fair competition. It’s not unreasonable or unscientific to use testosterone rates as one measure of biology to test female athletes. It may not be desirable or the most accurate, but it’s not on par with the biological sexism that has historically barred women’s participation in sport. The CAS referenced this reality in their statement regarding discriminating against women like Semenya. From a BBC report, “CAS found that the rules for athletes with DSD were discriminatory – but that the discrimination was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to protect “the integrity of female athletics.” Given that intersex individuals like Semenya are a tiny minority of athletes, the IAAF argued and the CAS agreed that discrimination in this instance upholds fair play.
But the Semenya case also does not prove the case for the anti-trans women’s participation crowd. This is not an instance of a regulatory body adjudicating the tough issues of trans women’s participation and the necessary biological requirements that must be made. This is a case of an intersex individual. The IOC has not budged on its updated requirements for female transitions and their hormonal level of suppressed endogenous testosterone. Furthermore, this ruling shows that whether the individual is trans or intersex, there are still clear social stigmas against these individuals. The fact that Semenya is receiving negative attention as a trans women, when she is a biological women, shows bad faith amongst some who hold this position. It gives further ammunition to those who argue about the social conditions of gender and the patriarchal domination of women’s bodies across the spectrum. It’s not an argument I would make, but you can see how these reactions to Semenya embolden the other side.
In the end, the CAS ruling clearly shows that biology is an important consideration for fairness in sport. For those who want to remove any biological restraints on competition, meaning that those who simply identify psychologically as the opposite sex without any corresponding physical transition, this ruling stands directly in their path. It is clear refutation that gender is socially constructed. But this case also displays the messiness that intersex individuals live with in the sport world. Caster Semenya was born with a condition that does give her an advantage over her competitors, but is it unnatural in the same way a man who transitions after puberty has over the female field of competitors? It’s a much harder question. Rather than use Caster as a mark to use against your ideological opponent, try to empathize with her position. It’s difficult to say to an individual that your biology restricts you, unless you artificially alter it negatively, from competing as you were born. It may be the right decision for fairness, but that doesn’t mean Caster doesn’t deserve respect or compassion.