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Caster Semenya is being forced to alter her body to make slower runners feel secure in their womanhood

The courts decided that discriminating against some women is required for athletic competitions to be “fair” to other women.
South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates winning gold
South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates winning gold in the Women's 1500m Final at the Carrara Stadium during day six of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia.Martin Rickett - PA Images / PA Images via Getty Images

UPDATE (Sept. 9, 2020, 9:38 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect that, on Sept. 8, 2020, Switzerland's Federal Supreme Court announced that it was denying Caster Semenya's appeal and upholding the Court of Arbitration for Sports' decision to require her to take special drugs to alter her body's natural state if she wished to compete in certain races.

Discrimination against some women is “necessary” to protect other women, according to the Court of Arbitration for Sports' and the Swiss Federal Supreme Court's rulings in the Caster Semenya case.

The CAS' and Swiss court's decisions come in a challenge to the International Association of Athletics Federations’ regulations for athletes with differences of sex development brought by Semenya, the Black South African runner who produces more testosterone naturally than has been deemed typical of cisgender women. The regulations that Semenya challenged would require her to artificially suppress her hormone levels in order to continue to compete in women’s events. In the executive summary of the still-confidential full decision, the court explained that the “regulations are discriminatory but that ... such discrimination is a necessary.” That decision was upheld by the Swiss court on appeal.

Notably, the regulations and decision apply only to eight events — three of which are the races that Semenya generally runs.

In other words, the CAS and the Swiss appeals court have decided that differential treatment for Black women, trans women and intersex women is required for athletic competitions to be “fair” to other women — at least, it is under a system in which white people wield tremendous power over the bodies and autonomy of those who are perceived to be a threat. These decisions come during the current political moment of global attack against individuals who do not fit stereotypes of binary sexual difference, and after a long history of white authorities policing the bodies of women of color, particularly those Black and Indigenous women from the global south.

“I know that the IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” Semenya said in a statement after the issuance of the decision. “For a decade, the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger.”

She added, “The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”

Many people reacting to the decision have mischaracterized Semenya’s identity, calling her transgender (she is not) or male (she is not). She is a non-transgender woman who produces more testosterone than some percentage of other non-transgender women.

As Katrina Karkazis explained in a Guardian column in March, “Labeling women ‘biological males’ draws a dubious connection between sex, testosterone and athleticism that relies on long-discarded ideas that men and women can have a ‘true sex,’ that testosterone is a ‘male sex hormone’ and that testosterone is the key to superior athleticism. None of these are true, and it’s long overdue that people stop saying they are.”

The idea that you can identify a single physiological trait that neatly separates two binary sexes is simply false and serves the very structures of patriarchy and white supremacy that are used to attack powerful Black women (cisgender and transgender) who are perceived to trespass on the spaces that people want to reserve for white women.

Bodies are often coded as appropriately “male” or appropriately “female” through a lens of racism and white supremacy. And that lens is used to police some bodies in the alleged service of others: Just google “Serena Williams” or “Michelle Obama” alongside anti-transgender slurs to see how Black bodies and trans bodies are policed out of the category of “woman.”

This deliberate narrative about testosterone and “maleness” is used to hurt both Black cisgender women like Semenya and all transgender women who are being systematically excluded from women’s spaces and categories. Caster Semenya is not a man: She is a Black woman runner who is being subject to repeated public scrutiny and invasive bodily regulation because she disrupts expectations.

As Nation Sports editor Dave Zirin points out, “arguments about who is really ‘female’ have been used against women athletes for as long as women have played sports.” These efforts to define some female athletes out of the category of “woman” have been leveraged particularly against Black women.

The decisions are part of an escalating narrative that some women threaten the integrity of the category of “woman” altogether. For instance, former elite athletes in the United States and the United Kingdom have mobilized to oppose legislative and other protections for transgender women, falsely claiming that they will mark the end of women’s athletics. These claims inaccurately compare transgender women to non-transgender men, ignore the history of trans participation in sport with no dominance whatsoever and open the door to widespread attacks on the trans community by claiming that our bodies inherently threaten others.

The search for a true, binary, biological sex in each individual is, in truth, both futile and dangerous. The imperatives behind these searches are almost always exclusionary in nature and greatly misapprehend the extent to which our bodies and physiological characteristics are affected by our experiences in the world.

The idea, for example, that a woman who is transgender is equal to a non-transgender man is patently false. In addition to the many medical changes that some people undergo to align their bodies and hormone levels with those typical of their lived gender, how we experience both trauma and social engagement in the world greatly impact our bodily function. It is why and how, at the population level, life expectancy is so varied across race, class and geographic lines.

Existing systems of power may only approve of some women as “women” and attempt to write people deemed insufficiently male or female out of spaces in varying ways. But we can all only survive as our authentic selves — and so we will keep fighting to exist in our full truths, however inconvenient those truths may be to those who want to keep power (and medals) only for themselves.