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Not black and white, nor pink and blue

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Caster Semenya burst onto the international stage two months ago with a track-and-field victory that should have been an inspirational success story. Instead, the 18-year-old phenom from rural South Africa has become the subject of a public debacle -- and the target of crude jokes, misinformed speculation and downright cruel personal attacks -- all because she is a woman who doesn't measure up to some people's definition of what it means to be female.

That is to say, she is a woman who is not woman enough.

Controversy surfaced the day before Semenya won the 800-metre race at the 2009 World Track and Field Championships in Berlin, when it was leaked to the media that the International Association of Athletics Federations had ordered a "gender verification test" in response to concerns about the young athlete's muscular build, deep voice and impressive race times.

So began a saga that has since been reported the world over -- and along with it has come a glimpse into our understanding of sex and gender.

People often conflate the two terms, even though it's widely accepted in feminist, sociological and psychological circles -- and certainly within the GLBT community -- that sex and gender are different concepts.

Really, it's not all that complicated. Sex is defined biologically; determined by a person's chromosomes, hormonal levels and reproductive organs. Gender, on the other hand, has less to do with a person's biology and more to do with his or her social characteristics, feelings and, to an extent, outward appearance.

As the World Health Organization puts it: "Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women."

Some people whose gender identities don't match their biological sex at birth define themselves as transgendered (the "T" in GLBT). Others use terms such as "gender outlaw."

Of course, Caster Semenya is neither a transgendered person nor a gender outlaw. She is a woman and always has been -- something many are having a hard time grasping, what with all the "is she really a man?" chatter.

Despite the "gender verification test" Semenya has undergone in compliance with the IAAF -- which has included examinations by an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, an internal medicine expert, a psychologist and a "gender expert" -- there is no "gender controversy" here.

If anything, there is a sex controversy.

IAAF officials are being tight-lipped about the test results and will not be making any decisions about whether Semenya will be eligible for future competitions until November. However, a non-verifiable story published in an Australian tabloid has reported Semenya was found to have no uterus or ovaries, and internal testes.

If true, Semenya may be an intersex woman, born with anatomy that doesn't match or falls in between the typical biological definitions of male and female. (Intersex has replaced the term hermaphrodite, now considered to be outdated and, to some, offensive.)

The unsubstantiated report has spread around the globe, and consensus is that this must be very humiliating for poor Semenya, who is now in trauma counselling.

Once again, we are projecting social constructions onto the situation.

There is nothing inherently humiliating about being intersexed. According to the Intersex Society of North America, one in 2,000 babies is born with "noticeably atypical" genitalia, while many others are born with more subtle anatomical differences (or no outwardly visible differences at all) as the result of all sorts of medical conditions.

Perhaps Semenya is seeking counselling not because her body is different -- frankly, the bodies of most elite athletes are different from the rest of us in some way -- but because she is being gawked at like a circus freak. That kind of stigma is a lot for a teenager to handle, even a strong one.

Recently, a completely made-over Semenya appeared on the cover of South African gossip mag You Magazine. Dolled up in makeup and nail polish, dressed in black evening attire and adorned with lots of shiny gold jewelry, she talked a good game, saying, "I like me the way I am and who cares what other people say?" but it felt forced and made me sad. A world champion deserves to be held up as a role model just the way she is and wooed with lucrative endorsement deals. She should not have to "perform her gender," as one blogger so aptly put it, to convince the world of her femaleness.

Regardless of what the IAAF ultimately decides (and personally, I think she should be allowed to compete), Caster Semenya's public debacle has become a learning opportunity for us all.

Thanks to her story, the world has begun talking about the fact that some human beings fall outside society's gender binary. Some even fall outside of the sexual binary.

The lesson to be learned? Sex and gender are not black and white concepts, nor are they pink and blue.

Marlo Campbell writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2009 A12

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