Saturday, January 24, 2009

Punishing Difference

Vaibhav Saria

Tamil athlete Santhi Soundararajan attempted suicide in September 2007 in Pudukottai by consuming dangerous amounts of a veterinary drug. She was driven to take her own life because, in 2006, after winning the silver in the women’s 800m race at the Asian Games, she was stripped of her medal, her accolades, and her job (she had earlier that year won the gold in the 1,500m and the silver in the 800m at the South Asian Games in Colombo) and subjected to humiliation and governmental indifference. This is because a test ostensibly revealed that she was biologically intersexed. (which means that while the male has XY chromosomes and the female has XX chromosomes, there are instances when a person might have an XXY chromosome as well, hence, intersex, somewhere between the two sexes). Furthermore, I should just mention at the outset, that having this extra chromosome doesn’t necessary mean that you have external physical manifestations of both the sexes. Hence, let us straightaway clear Santhi of any intentional deception.

The way media represented the case didn’t help either; calling it “the sad story of” or “the mysterious case” or “the strange case of” Santhi Soundararajan instead of looking at what assumptions of gender and sex were problematically being made by the federation. Instead of raising a ruckus — the reports were relishing the sensation of the ‘freak’ and had hideous and offensive headlines like ‘Santhi runs like a man, but cries like a woman.’ The Olympic Council of Asia assumes that there are two genders and two sexes (the International Olympic Committee does not do gender tests), but also that these genders and these sexes have something universally definitive about them. There is a plethora of genders out there — male, female, intersex, hijra, transsexual, transgender, male-to-female transsexuals (MTF), female-to-male transsexuals (FTM): should they not be given the chance to become sportspeople?

There are a lot of sexes as well: the male sex (XY chromosomes), the female sex (XX chromosomes), the Turner Syndrome (XO chromosomes), the Triple xxx Syndrome (XXX chromosomes), the Klinefelter syndrome (XXY), XYY syndrome, XX male syndrome, Swyer syndrome (XY female). And I have just hit the three chromosomes list — the list is longer if you look at anomalies with four chromosomes. And none of these “deviations” necessarily imply any physical manifestations, deformities or incapacities. The point is that there are not just two sexes. The intersexed condition, with which Santhi was ostensibly diagnosed, itself has five variations. People are born with both or neither of the male and female gonads. Further, the stage of development of either results in more combinations, which ultimately makes it impossible to determine clearly whether you fall into the male or the female category. The ambiguity in the reports about Santhi in the Indian media shows this ignorance. References to her ambiguous sex organs, to her anatomy not matching her chromosomes, to her characteristics of a woman and the internal sex organs of a man.

If this is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), she is not a man because her body does not respond to testosterone she is producing, but there is no space, at the end of the day, for an XY female athlete.Now, take the plurality of genders (which by no means is an exhaustive list) and take the numbers of choromosomal patterns (which again is not an exhaustive list) and create all sorts of permutations and combinations and see the number you come up with. How can then you clearly say this is a man and this a woman? Should people with all of these “syndromes” not be allowed to play? Should they not be allowed to live? The violence of such archaic notions of sex, uninformed by science, and unethical in practice are clear. Santhi tried to kill herself because she was an athlete, a brilliant athlete, who had won for her country one of the few medals that it manages to win every four years, who had been shamed and stripped of her hard-earned and well-deserved medal because of some outdated and unscientific beliefs about sex and gender. Very few among us can claim to know that feeling that an athlete, especially a lower caste athlete from a small town (Kathakurichi) gets, when, after years of toil and discipline, she holds the fruits of her work in her hands and makes her village and family proud. The shame and the violence of having all of that negated because of unsubstantiated and unjustified reasons backed by some old boys’ uninterrogated crap about sex and gender must be bafflingly painful to her.Nobody contested not only the administering of this test (the team comprising a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and genetic expert — god save us from these!) but also what it assumed. I find such assumptions rich coming especially from the field of sports which has a long history of encouraging the consumption of performance-inducing drugs that play havoc with one’s hormonal system, starting from cocaine and opium in the 17th century. What kind of “natural” performance and “natural” athletes are the sports federations around the world looking for when they pump their athletes with all kinds of unnatural substances that they first allow and then ban? Give me the kabbadi tournaments in Punjab, the football clubs of Calcutta, and mohalla cricket over the cruel, discriminating arena of international sports. They apparently are not concerned with whether you’re a good athlete, but whether you have the right chromosomes.

The only relief for Santhi and for us is that the Tamil Nadu government recognised her as a female athlete and awarded and feted her. More recently, reports have stated that with the support of the TN government, she has started coaching youngsters in athletics. Along with the aravani voter rights issue, the Tamil Nadu government is proving to be arguably the most progressive government in the country. —Vaibhav Saria is doctoral student in Medical Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University researching HIV and AIDS in India. He can be contacted at

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