How do you decide someone’s gender ?

“Caster is a woman, she remains our heroine. We must protect her.” – SA Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile.

semenyaTests on 800 metre world champion Caster Semenya are likely to show that she has an “inter gender” condition. 

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph say Ms Semenya is a hermaphrodite. (definition here )

The same paper asks it’s readers whether she should be stripped of her medal – ATOW a small majority says no, she shouldn’t.

chrmoasomesBut can tests decide what sex someone is ?

Alison Redick is an assistant professor of women’s studies and a medical historian at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York and says, in this piece featured on the Fox News site ..

“Given that testosterone is not an exclusively male hormone — both male and female bodies produce testosterone and estrogen — where do we draw the line? -And trying to draw that line is always going to be a problem, regardless of what someone’s biology indicates”

Dr Wiebke Arlt is a professor of medicine at the University of Birmingham. He says it’s  rather silly” to imagine tests can verify gender. :

“Gender is determined by social as well as biological factors, how you perceive yourself and how you were raised,” she said. “Whether her chromosomal sex is XX or XY, Caster Semenya appears always to have identified as female, and tests are not going to change that.”

 And even if the tests can prove something (or nothing) – hasn’t this case been handled about as badly as it could be ?

And some of the reporting of the case has caused offence and anger- try this blog for a taste .


And what about Caster herself ? How must she be feeling when every intimate detail is discussed (and in places, derided) in public ?

Santhi Soundarajan (right) was stripped of her 800 meters Asian Games  silver medal after failaing a test, and later tried to kill herself :

” She should not undergo the same sort of humiliation and insults I have faced. This would affect her mentally and physically and she would not be in a position to hold her head high”.

59 Responses to “How do you decide someone’s gender ?”

  1. 1 patti in cape coral
    September 11, 2009 at 15:23

    I have started to see gender kind of on a line, like this:

    Male___-3___-2___-1___0___1___2___3 female

    I guess zero would be people who were born physically and chemically with both genders. The rest of us, I think, fall on one side of the other to varying degrees, depending on chemistry. I think if you fall on either side of this scale, you are a man or a woman. A woman that is closer to the middle would still be a woman. I am not a scientist, chemist, or a doctor, this is just a theory of mine, I could be totally wrong and would welcome some enlightment if that is the case.

    Ms. Semenya’s case was handled abominably, but I can’t say I’m surprised. This whole thing should have been private,at least until something definite was known. In fact, it should have stayed private once the outcome of tests was known, but that would be too much to expect.

  2. 2 steve
    September 11, 2009 at 15:43

    This should only be an issue for those who were born with both sets of genitalia, hermaphrodites. they are the only people who should be given a choice. If you have a man who really wants to be female, but was born a male, actually even encouraging this is only enabling the mentally ill. It’s like if a white person wished they were black, or a black person wished they were white. But when you’re a hermaphrodite, that’s a completely different situation, and those people should be given the choice to be one or the other, or to remain both.

  3. 3 Anthony
    September 11, 2009 at 15:54

    @ steve

    Very well said. Exactly what I was thinking.

    Maybe they should just have womens evernts, men events, and hermaphrodite events.

    -Anthony, LA, CA

  4. 4 Keith from Massachusetts
    September 11, 2009 at 16:08

    She’s not a hermaphrodite. She was born with female genitalia, she’s a woman regardless of whatever hormones are in her body.

  5. 5 Tom D Ford
    September 11, 2009 at 16:08

    What an odd problem.

    It is not fair for 100 percent women to have to compete with her and it is probably not fair to force her to compete with 100 percent men.

    In a sense this is like the East German communist women who took steroids to compete unfairly in the Olympics.

    But apparently Castor is a natural example of the drug taking problem. How could you outlaw nature?

    This will take some considerable thinking.

  6. 6 Tom K in Mpls
    September 11, 2009 at 16:16

    When chemistry fails, drop the pants. Or maybe drop the pants first and save the testing cost. Check for surgery of course, but what you see is what you get.

  7. 7 Belinda in NC
    September 11, 2009 at 16:41

    I agree in large part with Steve. There are cases where newborns have deformities of single sex genitalia and the available surgical options for restoring the birth sex or altering six come into consideration. However, the individual does not participate in that decision – parents & doctors decide.

    Unless hormone levels are artificially regulated, how would such an individual even know of this transgenderification? Should such individuals who compete in sports unaware of a decision in which they did not participate be responsible for it when it takes invasive medical tests to establish that such an event took place in the past?

    September 11, 2009 at 17:31

    This case has been handled badly enough. By all means she is entitled to her gold. If she is twin sex, it won’t change that fact because she will still be first in that category too.

    Blame the games authorities. They are lying. It must be something they new about and they should decide on the basis of such categories. Twin sex is not a new phenomenon. Her case is not as bad as that of the historical female pope.

    • 9 Tom K in Mpls
      September 13, 2009 at 15:01

      By your link, the female pope was a case of simple and clear deceit. What we have here is a case of blurred lines being handled openly and badly.

  9. 10 steve
    September 11, 2009 at 17:33

    @ Keith

    According to the BBC, she has internal testes and no ovaries.

  10. 11 confused now
    September 11, 2009 at 17:52

    Its got to start with the appropriate kit – doesn’t it? I mean, that’s what I was always told – so yeah ?!?

  11. 12 Tom D Ford
    September 11, 2009 at 17:53

    September 11, 2009 at 17:31

    “Twin sex is not a new phenomenon. Her case is not as bad as that of the historical female pope.”

    Female pope? I have not heard of that, tell us more.

      September 11, 2009 at 18:19

      @ Tom D Ford
      Revisit your history brother or find an honest Catholic Priest or a bishop. Promise not laugh because it was no laughing matter. Sure it did happen although this bit is under the carpet now. She became pregnant and No one would have known about it and imagine the shock when she underwent an emergency delivery in the open air while she was on her papal (mamal?) duties. That’s how they knew.

        September 11, 2009 at 18:28

        @ Tom D Ford

        According to that bit of unholy history she was sponsored by a group of Catholic hawks at the time. It is all history we have now even though I guess they must have known how she got pregnant as well. It is there in the early history of the church way back before the Reformation period. As a matter of fact, it was a scandal. I do not know how many women and men were involved in that conspiracy.

        Oh Thomas. Must you see the scars?

  12. 16 nora
    September 11, 2009 at 17:54

    Cheers to Semenya, shame on this whole scandal. The young deserve our encouragement, not mean spirited lookie-loos. Perhaps if prize money were not part of sport, we wouldn’t care so much about gender.

  13. 17 Emma
    September 11, 2009 at 17:56

    Why don’t they have special races for intersex people anyway ?

  14. 18 nora
    September 11, 2009 at 18:10

    One of the most famous speeches by a US woman about gender roles is more than a hundred years old. Accused of being unfeminine, former slave Harriet Tubman describes her muscle-building back breaking labor and poses the question, and ain’t I a woman?

    Most posts so far are by men and smack of intolerance and homophobia.

  15. 19 Tom D Ford
    September 11, 2009 at 19:30

    @ Emma
    September 11, 2009 at 17:56

    “Why don’t they have special races for intersex people anyway ?”

    I don’t know but I would guess that there just are not enough intersex people to justify holding special races for them. So far there are only two that have been mentioned.

  16. 20 steve
    September 11, 2009 at 19:37

    @ Nora

    Where is the intolerance and homophobia concerning a subject which that doesn’t apply to? If this person is really male, then they are cheating, by competing in a woman’s race, as men are stronger and faster than women. That’s the concern. Say if this were a case of a not a hermphrodite, which only the tests concluded, but instead a male pretending to be a woman. Would you have no problem with that? Do you let your kids cheat in school as well?

  17. 21 Alan in Arizona
    September 11, 2009 at 20:36

    In reality, it should have never gotten this far. With all the past cases, a simple test should be administered to every athlete as part of the drug screening to see if an athlete falls within normal hormonal guidelines. If they don’t, they don’t compete. Male or Female! Caster Semenya’s , coaches, administrators, doctors, South Africa’s sports organization should have all caught this irregularity years ago. They should be the ones that are embarrassed and guilty of fraudulent activities and making this young person suffer through this. They are the root cause of the problem. They had to know that the testosterone levels were to high and at 18 Caster should have know that things are not right. Now they are all trying to cover up their lies and blame the rest of the world. Remove the medal and ban from any sports activity all those individuals that led Caster to a poor decision in life.

  18. 22 KC
    September 11, 2009 at 21:10

    Nature can sometimes be cruel.

  19. 23 patti in cape coral
    September 11, 2009 at 21:30

    @ Arthur Njuguna- Thanks for the link, what a fascinating story!

    BTW – Many years ago I was watching a late night medical show and it was a story about a girl who was suspected of having a tumor. She had exploratory surgery and it was found to be a testicle. This case was different, though, because this girl looked very feminine, and she did have ovaries. She did take a peek at her records, because her parents and doctor had not told her the truth of the matter, and she did freak out a bit before they reassured her that she was still in every way a girl.

    It has been stated that if the external genitalia is that of a woman, then she is a woman, but is it possible to be externally a woman, and have all the chemical attributes of a man inside? Should we go by what blood tests say, or what the body looks like? Does this mean it would be more fair for her to compete against other men? Or does this mean her abilities are in between, stronger and faster than a woman, weaker and slower than a man? It really isn’t as simple as I thought. It just doesn’t seem fair that her victory has been so bitter.

      September 12, 2009 at 08:20

      All our lives are in gray areas just as we all have the gray matter; so’s the monkeys. It is not always true that as a man I can outran every woman or outreason her. We forge ahead by making compromises which makes things you would call foolish come out true.

      This sexist thing has to go away so that all can excel according to their natural abilities. As for the twin sexed, I think that they are sometimes stronger than we are. Imagine how we fret over small things and yet quite a good number of them emerge from a position of spiritual strength despite our mouthing at them. Its not easy to live under such circumstances for us ‘normal’ people and stripping her/him of the gold meddle makes us seem even more weaker and defensive.

      Come to think about it Patti, they are lucky because unlike us they can choose their gender. Where is ‘cheating’ coming from?

  20. 25 Thomas Murray
    September 11, 2009 at 21:49

    Awrk! This is a thorny one.

    But, Nora — homophobia aside — do you really think it’s fair that a person that’s more man than woman compete in a woman’s event?

    I must admit to being totally at sea on this one.

    –Totally Confused in Louisville, Kentucky, US.

  21. 26 Anna Lowenstein
    September 11, 2009 at 22:05

    All successful athletes have physical advantages over other people: longer legs, greater lung power, whatever. Some of it is the result of training, but basically it’s genetic. Otherwise we could all become Olympic athletes if we had the right training!

    This particular athlete apparently has certain masculine traits which give her an advantage over other female athletes. But if we outlaw her we should also outlaw the tall long-legged athletes whose physique gives them an extra chance in the marathon, or the thick-set heavy men who physique gives them advantage in the weight lifting.

  22. 27 Tom D Ford
    September 11, 2009 at 23:54

    If nothing else, some people will learn a little about the range of variations that nature provides. There is no black and white in female and male sexes, there is a wide range.

  23. 28 Bert - USA
    September 11, 2009 at 23:55

    Athletes, except for equestrians, have been separated by gender to avoid at least some of the bias. Obviously, some athletes are better than others. But the gender-based bias is supposed to be taken out, in sports where this matters.

    Reading the blog, the women seem more concerned about the person’s feelings rather than the potential for unfair competitive advantage, more willing to let her compete against other women.

    Well then, surely this is no problem for the male athletes. I say, ask the female athletes what they think. Do they agree with the female bloggers on WHYS? Are they willing to race against a competitor with a gender-based advantage?

    If so, no problem.

    • 29 Pierre-Ange
      September 12, 2009 at 14:08

      To Bert :

      I live in a small place and I run 800, 1500 and 3000m races. We are only one or two girls to compete on these distances, so we are often told to run with boys. It is not a problem at all, neither for the boys, nor for us girls. And this must be the case in many small places around the world. In my opinion, gender separation is useless, and even counterproductive for women, as they have no incentive to perform better. We should classify the results the way we do in football : first league, second league, etc. In such a classification, an athlete like Caster Semenya would have no problem at all, as she would probably be upgraded according to her performances.

  24. 31 Pierre-Ange
    September 12, 2009 at 03:04

    We all think that men are bigger and stonger than women. However, how many men could boast of running 800m in less than 1min 54sec ? How many men can run 100m in less than 10.50s ? No ordinary male athlete can do that, only champions can. When Usain Bolt makes world records, he is a hero. When a female athlete makes records, she is a suspect.
    It is weird that the sport authorities only test female athletes to check their feminity. Why don’t they test male gymnasts, too ? Indeed, as women’s muscle are more flexible, it give them an advantage as gymnasts. One could consider that male gymnasts with female-like muscles have an unfair advantage against other competitors.

  25. 32 ejay
    September 12, 2009 at 03:26

    that guy oops sorry girl is a guy, will bet my hands on it,pls strip him sorry her of the medal

  26. 33 Ben
    September 12, 2009 at 07:17

    Here’s another similar story to compare. It’s about Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema (

    I feel it’s only reasonable that the issue of intersexual competitors is discussed. Perhaps some regulation will come out of it. But it shouldn’t be about individual cases. Proper and well led debate could avoid that the whole world is talking about Caster Semenya, Santhi Soundarajan or Foekje Dillema and judging them on something they can’t change.

  27. 34 Slowman Abdul
    September 12, 2009 at 08:51

    I think the issue of gender should be well address by the IOC, weather to stop hemophrodites from the game or organise there their own sex race. I see it as a cheat if she runs in the female lane.

  28. 35 Omar
    September 12, 2009 at 09:19

    Wy shuld he be striped of his title. If he had been honest in d !rt place. He kne w d truth would b discoverd sooner or later.

  29. 36 Emile Barre
    September 12, 2009 at 10:40

    Here’s the sole criterion: If it helps to cover up drug-taking in sport do a test. If not, forget it.

  30. 37 justathought
    September 12, 2009 at 14:10

    To me this person is first and foremost a human being. What concerns me most is whether she has lived as a woman all her life or as a man. Whether or not she has more testosterone should not be the only factor in determining her eligibility to compete as a woman. If she has lived as a woman and has always seen herself as a woman then to me she is a woman and deserves to be treated as such. If not then I suppose some of these criticisms are fair game.

    If we start measuring gender by a single criteria like testosterone then we may have to revisit some other very successful female althletes to question whether they had an unfair advantage against other women. Why should anyone begrudge her her medal and humiliate her with insensitve comments about her body parts? On the contrary we should feel compassion towards her for the very reason that her life must be a little more complicated than ours.

  31. 38 Colin Sundaram
    September 12, 2009 at 15:07

    12. 09. 09

    There are many female athletes who are almost like men and I trust all of them have been tested both externally and internally for proving their sex! Leave this poor dame alone to let her lead a peaceful life. She is likely to be gawked at by people where ever she goes and you can imagine how traumatizing it will be for her. I urge the South African government to give this human being some form of anonymity. All senses of human beings are almost the same irrespective of whether they are Caucasian, African, Indian, hermaphrodite, bisexual, homo-sexual or whatever.

    Colin Sundaram

  32. September 12, 2009 at 17:42

    What does it matter either way in a world where one can marry another of the same sex. The world is going, if it isn’t already crazy.

  33. September 12, 2009 at 20:39

    If a sports organization is going to conduct drug testing on all athletes, then a gender test should be included at the time, never after the competition has already taken place. Singling-out Caster Semenya, a gifted and hard working athlete, for such testing is humiliating and discriminatory. It is another example of the slavemaster-like attitude of many sports organizations in which the athlete’s basic human right to have control over their bodies is violated.

  34. 41 Steve in Boston
    September 12, 2009 at 21:55

    Big deal. So a hermaphrodite has natural superior athletic abilities over conventional women. Is that any reason to keep her/him out of women’s racing? Isn’t that race-ism? :-/

      September 14, 2009 at 08:36

      @ Steve

      Its not about race but gender confusion and how in the current millennium sports authorities are not yet aware that we might be having more than two gender types. I wonder given that sport is as old as agriculture. They have a very weak case which is making them uneasy because an automatic ban on twin sex will be scandalous issue . In any case they now have a starting point. If I were them, a cursory look at at this blog could be of much needed help. Seriously though, I doubt that gold medal can be said to have been stolen.

  35. 43 scmehta
    September 13, 2009 at 08:04

    All the competitors, in any kind of competition (sports or any other), must have to take medical tests including the gender test before the competition; Once declared fit and eligible to participate, no further controversy or dispute should be admissible.

  36. September 13, 2009 at 11:20

    I think the worst thing about this has been the sensationalist media coverage. I think about the Indian athlete who committed suicide in a similar situation. There should be more respect for these intimate matters.

    The South African athletic association must bear the main blame though. They could have spared Semenya this huge distress by being upfront from the start. As it is, they’re now playing the racist card again, refusing to acknowledge their own dishonesty.

    International athletics bodies should act to ensure that no one need ever be publicly exposed over this issue. They should act preventively instead of dithering after the fact.

    As to the question: what constitutes a woman? Well, there are many subtleties nowadays, and these should be heeded. But in sport it’s a question of an unfair physical advantage, and that’s a valid point.

  37. 45 Maina
    September 13, 2009 at 12:27

    i will not get into Ms Semenya’s gender status. My issue with this whole situation is how it has been handled by the athletics body & the media. I find it appalling that the results of the tests carried out have been made public. This is an extremely personal issue the the fact that the media is carrying out opinion polls on it is reprehensible. My heart goes out to Ms Semenya, she has been failed by every person who was supposed to look after her interests, the South African athletics body, coaches, team officials, medical staff who should have tested her in confidence, the world athletics body for not only missing her situation but conducting the tests in a public manner & failing to protect her privacy, the media & in reflection us, the consumers of media for eating up every spoonful that’s been thrown to us.

  38. 46 Leo
    September 13, 2009 at 13:19

    It is a shame that sport has become so competitive that the gender of athlete should be questioned. Nowadays ‘women’ look more like men.

    I’ll tell you one thing though, during the Roman era there were no such issues as they competed almost naked. No, I’m not suggesting they strip of course.

  39. 47 Macq
    September 13, 2009 at 22:42

    I think it is only fair that women compete against women in order to have a level playing field.
    If Athletics South African really cared about Semenya’s feelings, they could have conducted these tests in-house to avoid putting her in this situation. They just wanted an Olympic gold medal for their country. Well they did get but at what price?? is it really worth putting your girl under all this torment? Leonard Chuene pretended to be resigning from IAAF board because of the tests and now since the damage is done he is going back to the IAAF board. How sad!!!!!



  40. 48 Martin
    September 14, 2009 at 07:36

    Whats between their legs is a good start….what are we going too..male, female..other? hermaphoradite? I bet most of the female East german Olympic teams during the cold war had more testostarone than most men!

  41. 49 SD Audarya
    September 14, 2009 at 12:52

    I suppose before participating in the sports event careful examination of gender is mandatory. Hope Semenya was also tested and allowed to participate in female category. For this hoopla the authorities are also responsible. If the clear line is demarcated between male and female before the sports event, the winner will be spared of humiliation and embarassment due to such doubtful conversations.

  42. 50 Will
    September 14, 2009 at 13:36

    Look, chromosomal identity is not something you get to pick and choose (at least for now). It’s a biological fact, and you can “decide” that no more than you can decide your species. But in our society, the concepts “male” and “female” map on to broader things than chromosomes. Even though many of those things are directly the result of chromosomes, many, such as matter of dress, are not. Clearly anyone should be able to decide if they identify with one, both, or neither of these concepts, regardless of what biological similarities they share with most people in their chosen category

  43. 51 Tom K in Mpls
    September 14, 2009 at 16:37

    After having reread the posts, I learned something. This subject is only complicated if you consider it important. As I see it, a reasonable choice was made and there is no reason to second guess it.

  44. September 14, 2009 at 17:25

    If a person is born without female genitals,womb,overies and fallopian tubes, then being a female is out of the question, whatever the person says they feel. Too much is clamed these muddled days to justify whatever is wished rather than what is the practicalities of the situation.

  45. 53 John in Salem
    September 14, 2009 at 18:09

    Males produce sperm, females produce eggs. If you can do both you’re a biological miracle – if you can do neither you’re an evolutionary dead end. Trying to redefine those parameters for the sake of sporting rules is an exercise in creative semantics.

  46. 55 margaret
    September 14, 2009 at 18:09

    No matter how anyone feels about it, the presence of testicles and the lack of female reproductive organs indicate “she” is a male and thus cannot fairly compete with women in an athletic competition as she is. Those testicles need to be removed as they present a cancer risk. I suppose when the testicles are removed and she has female levels of testosterone, then I suppose she might be able to continue her athletic career. Otherwise I think people should be free to live as the gender they identify with.

  47. 56 John in Salem
    September 14, 2009 at 20:35

    There are indeed many lower species, including earthworms, that can do both (and even stranger things) and all are entirely normal behaviors for them,
    but we’re not talking about earthworms.
    Putting aside the concept of “miracle”, from a biological standpoint you would have to classify a person who could do both as a new species.

  48. September 16, 2009 at 01:26

    So after all the intrigue and conjecture has anyone stated whether Semenya has all the biological requirements for it to be determined she is a female. How long does it take to establish that fact, unless there is something to hide?

  49. 58 Dennis Junior
    September 16, 2009 at 16:10

    What is being circulated on Sky News in the United Kingdom, what tests that were performed on this lady…Is simply unacceptable…


    =Dennis Junior=

  50. 59 Dennis Junior
    September 19, 2009 at 16:04


    This what South Africa authority has remarked about her case and the denial of the tests…..

    Why, am I not at all surprised with the news!

    =Dennis Junior=

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