Man or Woman? The Importance of Knowing

Photo Source: Charlotte Observer

Photo Source: Charlotte Observer

This week, the track world was shocked with allegations that perhaps South Africa’s running sensation and women’s world track champion in the 800 meters race may actually be a man! The International Association of Athletes Fedederation (IAAF) has requested that eighteen-year-old Caster Semenya undergo tests to verify her gender, however the results of the tests are not available for several weeks. According to one source, of the seven runners competing against Semenya, two believe she is a man. Standing at 5 feet 7 inches and weighing 140 pounds, Semenya may look masculine to some. I don’t know what is more tragic, that people think she’s a man or that she has to go through the embarrassing so-called gender verification tests.

And what exactly goes on in these tests? Semenya says she’s willing to prove she’s a woman by dropping her shorts. That’s like a “She’s The Man” moment (if you’ve watched the movie), thus suggesting that having a penis defines one’s gender. But what happens if one’s penis is accidentally chopped off, as in the case of David Reimer? Is one still a man? Do you have to be born with a penis to be called a man? Thus, I assume Semenya also had to undergo blood work and other tests to see if she is in fact, XY.

But for now, Semenya is still competing in the world championships despite these allegations, and she’s beating everyone! We’ll just have to see in a couple weeks if she is in fact a woman. I will feel sorry for Semenya if the reports end up saying that she really is a woman and she had to undergo all this to prove it to everyone. But perhaps it comes with the job of running, especially in the public eye.

Society places a huge importance of labeling and knowing what is what. We want to be sure. It’s important to be sure and to not make a mistake. But what does it mean to be a man or woman in today’s society? Has the definition changed?

This whole incident reminded me of an optical illusion I saw, in which your mind can constantly shift in visualizing a man or a woman. I’m sure that’s what the man was going through when he accused Semenya. But I do agree, she does look “manly” because society believes that men should be buff, which is why female bodybuilders get a lot of ridicule. Anyway, this certainly is some gender identity confusion.

But again, we’ll see and hear the results in a couple weeks. We’re all waiting.

For now, I’ll leave you entertained with this video of a man becoming a woman.

Source 1

Source 2

Photo Source: Charlotte Observer

**I also had a follow up in one of the comments. These allegations aren’t new to the track racing world. The same thing happened to Zimbabwe racing star Samukeliso Sithole, who was a prominent runner in woman’s track. Unfortunately for Sithole, the allegations were proved to be true. Sithole was indeed a man.



Filed under Issues/Causes, Life, Masculinity

48 responses to “Man or Woman? The Importance of Knowing

  1. Jeabenne

    Far too often people reduce “gender” to “genatalia.” You bring up an interesting point about what happens if a man’s penis is chopped off- is he still a man?

    But on the XY issue- that is not so simple, either. Androgen Senstivity Syndrome causes a genetically XY male to develop as female. These women live their lives and are accepted as women. There have even been beauty queens who had AIS.

    • Gio

      Thank you. I definitely wanted people to think about the definition of a man–and most people define a man as a person born with a penis. They leave it at that and don’t think of anything more. In the case of David Reimer, his gender was assigned to him simply because his penis was chopped off. I believe his parents and doctor thought of him in all respect of the ridicule he would have to endure, especially in high school when there are group showers. Thus, the decision was made for him, to be a woman.

      And thank you for bringing up the AIS point. That was definitely something I overlooked and had forgotten. You should be happy to know that AIS is definitely taught in gender classes.

  2. Hmm…
    Extremely interesting article. Nice work

    • James Brammer

      Women don’t have 6 packs,go look at women bodybuilders! This runner has the perfect 6 pack which makes him a girly man! He doesn’t want to compete with men so he runns against the ladies,how sad and pathetic.

  3. Since sports, in general, are not unisex, Mr. Semenya should not feel discriminated against if he ends up taking the gender test, what that entails.

    • Gio

      Mr. Semenya? Actually, to the world’s knowledge and South Africa’s claims, Semenya is a woman. But we’ll see in a couple weeks if she really is a woman. The world is waiting for an answer. And Semenya did not compete in a unisex track race. Semenya competed in the Woman’s 800 meter track race, but there are allegations that she might actually be a man. If she is a man competing in the a woman’s race, then Semenya will be disqualified.

  4. Pam

    This is the first photo I have seen of her, but judging from her appearance here she does look very much like a man to me, and I am a former weight lifter (and a woman).

    I just heard an interview with a geneticist (?) on BBC news re this athlete’s situation, and it was helpful to be reminded of the complexity of determining what we call ‘gender’.

    He said there are at least three different ‘measurements’ of gender. First, our chromosomal (and I think I misspelled that) gender–XX or XY (and that is subject to some variation). Second, the outward physical expression of gender; how we look–male or female–to others (phenotype). And, finally, most messy of all based on the impression I got listening to the interview, the balance, or imbalance if you will, of the hormones swirling around within us, which can result, of course, in effecting how we look and behave.

    We all, male or female, have within us certain level of both ‘male and female’ hormones: women have varying levels of testosterone and other androgens, men have varying levels of estrogens, etc. This athlete, he opined, might have very high androgen levels. Does that make her less a woman, or even a man? Dunno.

    Guess it all depends on how the athletic commissions define the slippery notion of ‘gender’.

    • Gio

      Thank you for adding this. That is often why the sex and gender discussion gets confusing. My Sociology of Gender professor, Linda Van Lueuven ( would be happy that you brought this to people’s attention.

    • CKH

      It appears we may be finally headed collectively in the direction of comprehending the psychological and spiritual bisexuality of the human race. Consider this: based on modern society’s narrow sociological definitions of male, masculine, and masculinity, even Jesus would come under severe peer scrutiny if He were alive today and living as He lived in biblical times. He never married, He spent all His time with other men, He had no “girlfriends” to speak of. (And I know all about the “Mary Magdalene” wife mythology.)

      Modern men would be murmuring about his sexuality and whether or not he was gay. We live in a most insecure era in regard to one’s gender affiliation. Men and women are just horrified of what they perceive to be “masculine” women. Women of strength must somehow in their minds be “more male” than others.

      We have narrowed the definitions of what is masculine and what is feminine down to the narrowest most ludicrous slivers of bandwidth, eliminating all creative variations and diverse expressions of the continuum between the butchest of the butch men and the comically stupid extreme femme fatales who cannot utter a single real thought.

      Between those two opposites poles are, in fact, a million variations and nuances of maleness, femaleness, bisexuality, and how the strengths of gender are expressed.

      I personally hope it turns out that the runner is a woman. Our species is still evolving to adapt to a world in deep crisis and standing at the edge of the collective naugual.

      We need all the sensitive men and strong women we can evolve, and as quickly as possible.

      Just my personal opinion.

      Chase Hunter

      • Gio

        I apologize that your comment wasn’t approved earlier–it was sent to my spam folder. Thank you for this different insight. And I agree, we do need “sensitive men and strong women.”

  5. Jen

    As a mom of a transgender child, it saddens me to read this. I wish there was more respect and awareness in the world so thank you for writing this. You’ve given people a chance to think about gender and how it plays a significant role in our society.

    • Gio

      Thank you. That is very encouraging. I’ve only had one transgendered friend, and it was very hard for her as well–all the discrimination and ridicule she had to endure. As corny as it might sound, both my parents have always instilled in me the notion that “evil triumphs when good people do nothing.” I’m not saying that I’m a “good” person, although I strive to be, but we’re all human beings first. There’s so much hatred in the world, so why hate some more? As idealized as it may sound, I’m all for loving people first. I hope people will pay it forward and love others as well. And I thank mothers like you who are supportive of their child, instead of rejecting them.

  6. I think it is a shame that the world has nothing better to do than to wonder about such unimportant matters. Of course she is a woman! A beautiful, strong woman.

    • Gio

      Thanks. And I love your blog, full of pictures of delicious food! I’m definitely going to try a recipe one day. after all, a post grad like me needs to remain independent and cook for himself!

  7. Wow, she does look pretty masculine… Must be horrible to be her (assuming she is in fact a woman).. Having people doubt your sex, to the point of having to scientifically prove it is one of the worst things someone can have to endure to keep performing as an athlete..

    Society does place a lot of emphasis on knowing what is what, but I do think it’s important to do so.. It’s like knowing if someone is a particular religion, can or can’t eat meat, above or below the age of consent etc etc.. Labels, although sometimes used the wrong way, help everyone know what to expect and make sense of the world.

    If she was labelled a man, she might be called a ‘slow athlete’ or she might not even make the world stage.. Yet as a woman, she is top of her class.. It’ll be a shocker if she is found to be a man and if so, let’s hope they make it compulsory to run these tests in future.. I do wonder about some of the ‘female’ eastern European athletes, hmm..

    • Gio

      What is also interesting is that these kinds of allegations aren’t new to the track world. I should’ve also written about Samukaliso Sithole, a Zimbabwean runner who also won many women races. There were allegations that Sithole was a man back in 2005. The allegations proved to be correct. He was indeed a man! When he was born, his genitals were deformed and a tribal healer placed a spell on him that gave him “female status.” Apparently, his parents only paid half the healer’s fee, and thus half the spell. It’s an interesting case. You can read some articles here:

  8. sarah

    What is being ‘determined’ here is sex, not gender (the two terms are not interchangeable); gender is a social construct (to do with suitable appearance and behavior for a person based on whether they were placed in the category ‘male’ or ‘female’ at birth), sex is biological ‘fact’ – except it isn’t, given the range of intersex conditions, as a previous commenter mentioned.

    Our socially constructed ideas of gender feed back into our ideas of what is ‘normal’ in terms of biological sex, hence the situation under discussion.

    • Gio

      Thank you for the distinction! You are right. I should’ve made that clearer.

    • Pam

      Take a look at my comments above where I tried to paraphrased with some accuracy the discussion this morning on BBC news.

      Even ‘sex’ is not cut and dried–not every human being is genetically just XX or XY, and more muddled I think, is the issue of the range of hormones of the ‘opposite sex’ each of us can carry within us.

      Sex, gender, man, woman–for the most part, each of us has no doubt–psychologically, genetically, hormonally–whether we are male or female, but there are many complex, notable exceptions, and it looks like this track star might be one.

  9. hi, I saw this post in wordpress´s home and I really liked 🙂 so much better read things like this about this polemic subject.

    • Gio

      thanks for the support. if only i could understand your blog–i believe it’s in portuguese, right? i sort of recognize some words from studying race and ethnicity of brazil. brazil is a fascinating country by the way!

      • yeah, portuguese! I´ll link your post in my blog and spread it all around. the post and the comments are so important to really think about this subject, not the way that common media is treating.

  10. netjane

    Nice post. As a South African, I am very interested in the outcome of the investigation, but saddened that it has to happen at all.

  11. Rosanna

    Im a fellow South African and also following this interesting story. My thought is? If she entered the Womans Race, surely she is a Woman, especially, knowing that if she looks suspect, she would be “prodded” and ‘probed” and possibly be disqualified. I think she is a Woman…… but we wait and see….

    • Gio

      I can’t speak for the IAAF, but perhaps she was never “prodded” or “probed” because there never was a need to. It was only recently that her sex was questioned. Like I said on my edit of this post and previous comments, this similar event occurred in 2005, and the runner really was a man.

  12. I am no expert on this matter but I do believe whether she is defined as a male or female she believes she is a female. That should count for something! She can’t help it if all her life she was told that she was something that the test may prove she is not. This could be devasting information, all of the questioning as it is probably has her questioning herself. She seems to be holding up fairly well which seems to say she is full of confidence after dealing with this her entire life she is more than likely ready to put the rumors to rest once and for all and possibly get some answers as to why she is the way she is to start with. Scientifically they should be able to offer some explanations.

  13. Observer

    I think her name, Semen + nya, doesn’t help.

  14. jo

    What happened to the days when things were so much more simple? It is sad, if she is a female, to have that questioned. But it can’t be the first time she was questioned. Especially if she is competing solely against women! Well, I will say it keeps things interesting!

  15. Pingback: Gender and architecture (not really) « Nelhaus

  16. Joe

    This is a concern within the sporting world, however IMO the amount of media attention this recieved is unfortunate. The matter should have been sorted behind closed doors, at least for the dignity of the athlete involved. These are matters that should only be made public once confirmation takes place.

  17. She is an incredibly talented athlete, yet either way this will be her legacy now. What a shame.

  18. just check her birth certificate, no need to drop her pants…

  19. dannyhageman

    These tests are not available for several weeks, meaning that the tests take weeks or just that the committee needs to gauwk to figure out how they don’t look completely pompous? Does it really take much to figure this one out? Very interesting post. Thank you.

    • Gio

      I believe that the reason it takes several weeks is because these gender verification tests have grown more complex. In 1968, the International Olympic Committee first utilized these tests, and you can imagine how advance these tests have gotten as a result of new technology. They will probably be looking at Semenya’s cellular matter and study Semenya’s chromosomes and hormones like other readers have commented.

  20. Hi Gio, a great article that makes one think where the definition of male / female begins. In the end the questions is, where manipulation starts to take effect. Looking at new world records delivered all the times again, I wonder if the anti doping commission is trying to draw attention to another subject in order to take attention away from the work that is actually not being made to soothe the sponsors need of news to promote the event. Greetings from Berlin.

  21. I do not think either man, but let’s wait.


  22. The Afrikaans newspaper in Cape Town published a story about her win on Thursday with the biggest type they could find for the headline: “Manjifiek” (“magnificent” pronounced mun – yi – fick) – which was a little unfortunate I thought, under the circumstances as a “man” means the same thing in that language.
    I agree with Joe, the media attention is a shame – perhaps every athlete in international competition should be tested before the event.

  23. I just think it’s really sad. If you listened to a Metro FM radio interview last night,between her mother and Robert Marawa(I’m sure there is a podcast available)you would have heard and known that,this lady,even if there was something a bit abnormal whne this girl was born,maybe in behavious or physically,she may not have had the worldly and complicated knowledge to undesratnd what it all meant.Many a time,someone is just considered a “tomboy” which,in many cases,”tomboys” grow up to become mothers and wives and nothing of it is made! This girl,mught just be a typical “tomboy” who simply took it a step further by engaging herself in physical exercise,hence the better definition of muscle,she may have,compared to a million other “tomboys’.
    let’s not jump to conclusions and remember,if she had no idea she was this XY chromosome,then this is devastating for an 18 year old,who is probably going through enough puberscent and social/young adult issues right now.It’s very insensitive of the media and people to do this.
    what if this was your child?what if you have a girl child now,but you have no idea she is a XY?Think about it.

  24. nick h.

    She could still be scientifically female and just be utterly crawling with male hormones; which seems the most likely outcome to me at the moment.

    If that’s the case, what would that mean? Would she still be allowed to compete as a woman, or compete at all?

  25. I’m sorry. Where did Mr. stem from in my brief blog? Semanya (no prefix) is more appropriate because of the unfolding controversy. Sure, one can choose what sex one wants to be, of course until it comes to sports where physically challenged people are not allowed to compete with perfect others, and physically challenged professional golfers can’t compete from golf-carts. Aren’t sports disgusting!

  26. girlinhat42

    I’d just like to point out first that this is an issue of sports here. For once the issue isn’t so much about labeling and pinning down, at least from what I’ve seen. The issue here is in fact about fairness. I hate to sound like this but men and women are different, and men are stronger. In sports, there’s a reason that there’s men’s sports and women’s sports, because it’s not a balanced compitition. The genders don’t have the same ability in terms of physical strength. A man competing in a women’s league would have a major advantage right off the bat, mostly because of testosterone. It’s a powerful chemical in terms of muscle growth and strength, and if you check around some issue about transgender atheletes, you’ll see that it’s the major issue. Without testosterone, the difference between strength comes to a fairly close tie, which is why transgender atheletes are often required to be post-SRS for 6 months to a year before being allowed to play competatively, so they can be sure all the T is flushed out and no more is being produced.

    The real issue with testing her gender isn’t being able to label “What is she?” but instead figure out, “Does this athelete have an unfair advantage?” Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of cases where the labels are the prime concern, and it will always be a concern when anything like this happens, but I honestly don’t believe that’s the real reason behind all this.

    • Gio

      Thank you for pointing that out. And you are right, the issue is sports and we want to be fair, especially when it comes to something like competition. Perhaps people just don’t quite agree with how it’s being handled–making the media making it a huge spectacle. I do think that blogs like mine that report this are also to blame. But at the same time, she’s part of the public eye, and once you are in the public eye you unfortunately are forced to forsake privacy by default. And Semenya’s story brings about an important discussion of sex and gender and the definition of each.

  27. progressboink

    Being “XY” in the 23rd chromosome does not mean you are male. The gender defining gene is the SRY gene. You can be XX and still be male if you have that gene.

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