What might have been weeks of celebration have become ones of public scrutiny for Caster Semenya, the South African runner who won the women's 800 meter final at the World Athletics Championship August 19. Due to Semanya's 8-second gain over her time in 2008, as well as her masculine appearance, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) required the 18-year-old to take a gender verification test. Initial test results confirmed that the teenager has three times the normal levels of testosterone for women. Rumors swirled about Semenya's head coach, Ekkart Arbeit—who was accused of giving female gymnasts steroids in the 1970s—and whether he had given Semenya similar treatments.
Now, a source close to the IAAF probe has told an Australian newspaper that the test showed that Semenya "had internal testes and no womb or ovaries," calling her a hermaphrodite later in the report. (Medically speaking, the source is wrong: a hermaphrodite is someone who has simultaneously functioning male and female sex organs. Thomas Rogers at Broadsheet helpfully clarifies the differences between a number of rare intersex conditions.)
While the IAAF stated today that it will not release its findings—which could disqualify Semenya's win—until November, media have already picked up on the hermaphrodite label. Semenya's parents and other South Africans have responded angrily, not only because the test might strip Semenya of her gold medal and an athletic career, but because it has exposed Semenya to sexual humiliation and her family to shame. Whether or not Semenya is biologically female, she has understood herself to be a female her whole life—something Semenya asserted with jewelry, makeup, and trendy clothing in You! this week (pictured above). As she told the South African magazine, "I am who I am and I am proud of myself. God made me the way I am and I accept myself."
How do Christians make sense of Semanya's story?
The Bible does not address the issue of hermaphroditism, but it does suggest that human sexuality is about more than having certain body parts and not others. The Creation account in Genesis 2 and 3 treats sexuality as something more than the physical ability to "be fruitful and multiply," though that is centrally important. It is also about the need to know and be known in intimate human relationship ("It is not good for the man to be alone," 2:18). This desire for relationship points humans to their ultimate desire for a relationship with God, something achieved in the saving work of Christ. In short, to reduce anyone to nothing more than the sum of certain sexual organs is dehumanizing. It strips the person of the imago Dei and, in Semenya's case, casts her as a sexual oddity to be examined under the media microscope.
This is what Leonard Chuene, president of South Africa's athletics federation, was driving home when he said this to Religious Intelligence last week:
In Africa, as in any other country, parents look at new babies and can see straightaway whether to raise them as a boy or a girl. We are now being told that it is not so simple. But the people who question these things have no idea how much shame such a slur can bring on a family. They are doubting the parents of this child and questioning the way they brought her up. God has his say on what people are. He made us all. A young girl has no input as she enters the world on what she will look like. It is outrageous.
Meanwhile, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan, whose silver medal from the 2006 Asian Games was taken away after a gender verification test concluded she was intersex, gave this advice to Semenya in an interview today: "She should not undergo the same sort of humiliation and insults I have faced. She is a woman and that's it, full stop. A gender test cannot take away from you who you are."
The IAAF test may end up taking away Semenya's gold medal—perhaps rightfully so. But it cannot take away the fact that no matter what body parts she has, Semenya bears the imago Dei, and, depending on the test results, may need much help and support figuring out exactly who she is.
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