There is a reason why genitals are euphemistically referred to as 'private parts'. Most of us would like to keep it that way. And I suspect that an 18-year-old woman, who has only just discovered that she might not be quite as 'female' as she thought, tops that list.
Unfortunately for Caster Semenya, the world has become obsessed with her gender and, by extension, her genitals. However the two are not as neatly packaged together as most of us would like to believe. In fact, the binary notion of gender — male and female — is something of a human construct.
There is a significant number of people who fall somewhere in between and are regarded as intersexed.
There is nothing new about this phenomenon — the term hermaphrodite (now outdated and somewhat offensive) was coined from the Greek god Hermaphroditus who possessed the physical traits of both sexes.
Of course, being intersexed is far more complicated than this. It can involve possessing ambiguous genitalia, sex organs that are not clearly male or female, or the internal genitalia of one sex and the external genitalia of another.
According to Intersex South Africa, our country has an unusually high percentage of intesexed individuals. It is estimated that every one in 50 people has sex organs that are in some way atypical and that one in 500 people are born intersexed (that is roughly 96 000 South Africans!).
Because of the complex nature of intersexuality, some people can go their entire lives without ever realizing that they are, in fact, intersexed. Being intersexed does not mean that you are gay, lesbian or transgendered — it is not about sexual orientation.
So, how does it work?
Intersexed individuals can be divided into four categories:
46 XX Intersex: Individuals with this condition have the chromosomes and ovaries of a woman, but external genitals that appear male. The most common cause of this is a condition called Congenital Adrenal Hypoplasia.
46 XY Intersex: The individual has the chromosomes of a man, but the external genitals are either ambiguous or completely female. Internally, the testes may be normal, malformed or completely absent. A common cause of this condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) occurs when the receptors to the male hormones (androgen) do not function properly.
True Gonadal Intersex: A person with this condition has both ovarian and testicular tissue. They may have XX chromosomes, XY chromosomes, or both. External genitals may be ambiguous or completely male or female.
Complex or Undetermined Intersex: Conditions which fall under this category do not involve a discrepancy between internal and external genitalia, but there may be a problem with sex hormone levels, overall sexual development or an altered number of sex chromosomes.
Wherever she may fall on the gender spectrum, Caster Semenya deserves more respect than she has been given. She also needs and deserves our compassion. In a country where so many people are faced with the challenge of being intersexed in a world which sees people as either male or female, it is time that we broaden our understanding of gender.
For more information contact Intersex SA on +2721 447 6290 or firstname.lastname@example.org.