Caster Semenya hit the headlines in August just before she won the 800m World Championship when it came to light that the IAAF had ordered her to undergo a gender test to ascertain whether she was truly female (although surely that should be called a sex test.) Celebrations of her decisive win were severely muted as she was advised not to talk to the press, although she received a rapturous welcome back in her native South Africa.
There has been tons of speculation and opinion in the media, and today the IAAF has distanced itself from an Australian newspaper that has reported that Semenya is a 'hermaphrodite', with both male and female sexual organs.
We are used to thinking of humanity in two neat categories of male and female but Semenya's story shows that it's not quite that simple. Human beings have a number of indicators of biological sex: chromosomes - males have XY and females XX, genitals, gonads - ovaries and testes, and hormones. Usually all these indicators are in alignment which is why we announce a baby's sex at birth based on the appearance of his or her genitals. But sometimes there are discrepancies between the indicators, and children are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit the typical pattern of male or female. Sometimes that's obvious at birth, and sometimes it doesn't become apparent until puberty. The term hermaphrodite is no longer officially used as its considered misleading and insensitive, and it's more usual to talk about disorders of sex development (DSD) or intersex.
The Intersex Society of North America has a useful website if you want more information about the range of conditions that fall into the category of intersex. They argue that biological sex should not be understood as two binary opposites, but rather as a spectrum. What I found interesting was their article on the frequency of intersex. The number of children born with atypical genitals is 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births, but there are a lot more people who are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations that won't show up until later in life - around 1 in 100 births. So in a standard secondary school, there could be one person who has had or is considering surgery to 'normalise' their genitals, and 10 to 15 who know or will discover that their bodies aren't quite like other people of the same sex - food for thought for all youth, children's and schools workers.
Whatever the reality of Semenya's biology, it's clear that she has been brought up as a girl from birth and she and her family have always considered her to be female. How horrendous to have something as personal as your biological sex being questioned and dissected by the international media. Let's be aware of how her story may impact others in youth groups and schools who may be struggling with similar issues.