Friday, August 21, 2009

Gender, running and why science can't tell us what sex we are

For those of you haven't heard yet, there is a young South African woman who is a runner. And she's kicking ass and taking names. So, the IAAF checked her out for steroids - good idea. Steroids are bad. But she was clean. She's just that good.

She's muscly, and has extremely short hair, and girls aren't usually that fast, so, since she wasn't on steroids, she had to be a man right?

Yeah. I'm still stuck on the "girls aren't that fast part".

So there's been all kinds of hoop la. People saying that this question is absurd. Other folks saying that she "must be a man". Her mother saying that she's a woman.

But people do all kinds of crazy things for success in sports. On some level, although it's absurd, I can see how someone could ask the question. Remember the kid who was a baseball player and everyone that it was amazing that someone his age could be so good. Until they found out that he was really four years older?

Most of the coverage has been stupid and sensationalized. Until the New York Times. As I read quotes from the article to my best friend, we both teared up. It's the first time I've seen a main stream news source, hell, "the paper of record" acknowledge that gender is "messy".

“It turns out genes, hormones and genitals are pretty complicated,” Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview. “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. Sports require that we do, but biology doesn’t care. Biology does not fit neatly into simple categories, so they do these tests. And part of the reason I’ve criticized the tests is that a lot of times, the officials don’t say specifically how they’re testing and why they’re using that test. It should be subject to scientific review.”
And then, they ended the article with this:
“But at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision,” Dreger said. “And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ” [italics added]
Since then, they have published an editorial written by Alice Dreger about the complexities of gender and defining gender scientifically. It's an incredibly informative editorial.

All of us should read it. Like now.

at the end of the day, these doctors are not going to be able to run a test that will answer the question. Science can and will inform their decision, but they are going to have to decide which of the dozens of characteristics of sex matter to them.

In the end, their decision will be like the consensus regarding how many points are awarded for a touchdown and a field goal — it will be a sporting decision, not a natural one, about how we choose to play the game of sex.

Thank you Alice Dreger. And I'm buying your book.

Funny, that science doesn't support a binary gender system. Wonder why....

I'd also add that Semenya seems to identify as a woman. Which is good enough for me.

**pic from the NYT article

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