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Caster Semenya, Gender Ambiguity, and…Marriage Equality?

Surely by now you’ve read of Caster Semenya, the new South African running sensation who clobbered the field in the 800-meter run at the recent World Track and Field Championships on Thursday. Before the gold medal been draped around the 18-year old’s neck, controversy erupted about the winner’s gender. Why? Take a look:

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.

What if Caster wanted to marry? According to the anti-marriage-equality squad, we’d first have to undertake at least some kind of inquiry into her gender, in order to determine which 50% of the population she’d be allowed to marry. On the rare occasions that the issue of gender identity has surfaced in courts, they’ve flailed. The question usually surfaces after a transsexual person (or that person’s spouse) has died, and some third-party comes in to challenge that the couple’s marriage was ever valid. The third-party’s interest may be in gobbling up the assets of the estate, or in avoiding liability in a wrongful death suit. Given the legal requirement that the spouses be of opposite sexes, the courts have struggled to come up with some metric for drawing the gender line. Some have sought certainty in the comfort of genetics; while others have looked, with equal simplicity, at the “new anatomy” and the ability to have sexual relations in a “binary gender” kinda way.

I don’t know why courts don’t simply say: This couple was married in a ceremony that the state allowed, lived their lives as a couple, and we’re not going to let some third party come in and negate that reality after one of them has died.

Oh, wait…maybe I do know. Gender non-conformists of all types make most of us uncomfortable. In one case from Kansas, the discomfort was so pronounced that the court went so far as to suggest that transsexuals couldn’t marry anyone. Caster Semenya is a gender non-conformist, too, even if her reality is worlds away from that of those with gender dysphoria. Will the governing body’s determination of her gender also determine whom she can marry? Are we that confident about the line that must be drawn for sports to apply it to every other reality, including the deeply personal issues of love, commitment and identity that form the basis of our decisions about whom to marry?

If Caster Semenya stays in her home country of South Africa, she needn’t worry. In that enlightened nation, she can marry the person of her choice — male or female. And so can everyone else, even those whose gender is quite clear.

Here’s a case where the outliers have something to tell us about our own, unquestioning commitment to the assumptions about gender that underlie so many of our laws and policies, including the ban on same-sex marriages. Procreation and “the ideal environment to raise children” — these increasingly discredited arguments for opposing marriage equality reflect a commitment to more than gender division. They are based on an idea that men and women are, and behave, in certain stereotypical ways, and that those rigid models are best for children. But if gender itself isn’t always clear, then what can we say about models that derive from it?

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