Gender Panelizing

A few days ago I was asked by a sociology professor to be a panelist in her Gender and Sexuality class. Given that I'm committed to rambling on about my experiences to any poor sap who will listen, including a captive audience of hapless college students, I enthusiastically agreed.

Most of this enthusiasm stems from knowing first-hand how unsettling transgender and gender-nonconformity can be for many - and how vital knowledge and interaction are for dismantling prejudice and discrimination. Openness is particularly vital given how corrosive assumptions about “normalcy" manifests in incredibly dangerous ways for anyone who strays from the fabricated norm.

It's particularly exciting to have so many cisgender allies who are so supportive, and help to educate away the ignorance through whatever means are available to them.

Speaking of, I stumbled across an interesting article just the other day regarding the controversy around the gender of Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African gold medalist:

Is the green-and-yellow clad winner male, or female? Semenya’s appearance is unsettling to many. Dividing the world, and the people we encounter, into two distinct genders, is one of the few certainties we allow ourselves. But in a small number of cases, that certainty isn’t available. International athletic governing organizations have had to deal with this reality for some time; the attempt to use chromosomal evidence to separate the genders had to be discarded when the results failed to account for those whose genetic make-up was more complex than the binary division could account for.

Now, the International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs track and field gender, determines gender through a much more complex analysis of various factors. According to this report in the Times, the inquiry will take weeks to complete and “requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.” As this list suggests, whatever conclusion the body reaches based on this pile of evidence won’t be unimpeachable. Assuming the evidence suggests that Caster Semenya has both male and female characteristics, the IAAF will simply have to decide that the athlete falls on one side of the line, or the other.

Not surprisingly, Caster’s family has always seen and defined her as female; parents start with the most obvious physical evidence, and then build their gender assumptions around that, even where contrary (and for them, less compelling) indications, begins to accumulate. In a deeper sense, the gender is less important to them than the fact that this person is their child, with unique needs, interests, and…identity. So while the IAAF must try to reduce a complex, inherently indeterminate question to an algorithm — there has to be a gender line for athletic competitions, at least for many sports — for most purposes that line-drawing just isn’t necessary, as much as we find comfort in it. Caster Semenya is Caster Semenya. Read more >


  1. Hey,
    my colleagues and I were discussing this case just a few days ago. Have you seen the the documentary "Too Fast to be a Woman?: The Story of Caster Semenya". I saw it sometime last year. Not sure if you can access this video in the U.S.A. but here is a link:

    Hope the panel goes well! :)

    1. I haven't, and I didn't even know it existed and now I *have* to watch it. I'll wait until this exam I have on Monday is over and then watch it as a reward! ;)

      The panel went super well. We were provided free beverage and bagels, and the students asked a lot of good questions and seemed to be really engaged and excited. Thank you for asking AND sorry for my extreme delay in responding!!!


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