A lot has already been written about Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old track wunderkind from South Africa who smashed records in her bolt to victory in the 800 meters at the IAAF World Championships two weeks ago. Unfortunately, precious little of it has been about her athletic prowess, and far too much of it has been about the accusations that she’s "not really a woman" – accusations that have culminated in the IAAF forcing her to subject herself to profoundly invasive "gender testing."
Let’s get biology out of the way. Science has long known that there are more chromosomal combinations than just XX and XY – there’s XXY and XYY and XXX and X0 and numerous other expressions of genetic gender. Physiologically, somewhere around 1 in every 2000 babies are born with atypical genitalia – genitals that don’t look exactly the way "male" or "female" genitals are supposed to look at birth. And, of course, a growing number of people identify as transgender or genderqueer, because they don’t identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth.
So why is the first question we ask when a baby is born (often before we even ask about the health of the child or the mother), "Is it a boy or a girl?" And why, when we get the answer, do we think we know anything about what the child will be like?
There’s a certain element of human nature at play here. People need categories. There’s so much information coming at us at all times that our brains like to group things that go together. Categories make it easier for us to look at a tire and a metal frame and some glass and bumpers and a bunch of other stuff and think just one thing: car. If we couldn’t make any assumptions about the world based on categories, we’d be paralyzed just trying to walk down the street.
In Western culture, we seem to like binary categories even more. Left or Right. Cat person or dog person. Black or white. Virgin or slut. Passive or aggressive. But if you ask the average person about these pairs, most of them will concede that there are more options than the Big Two. There are anarchocapitalists, and parakeet lovers, and people of Sino-Mexican descent.
Not so with gender. Ask most people, and they will refuse to concede that ground, perhaps only allowing that there are a few people who refuse to behave in a properly gendered way, and those people are "freaks." Our obsession with the gender binary is so entrenched that pop stars can make a stir by just winking at stepping over "the line" – and ordinary folks are much more likely to be met with brutal violence. Our government even believes that being able to tell men from women is a matter of national security.
Why do people so lose their minds about gender? Why, when his star athlete’s crowning accomplishment was challenged, did the head of Athletics South Africa react as though her very life was being threatened, saying “You denounce my child as a boy when she’s a girl? If you did that to my child, I’d shoot you”?
It’s a complicated question, but a recent study sheds some disturbing light on it. In it, a researcher at Yale Law School determined that people with a “conservative, traditional, and hierarchical” worldview, marked by “highly differentiated and stratified gender roles,” were significantly more likely to believe that a rape victim actually consented, even though she said “no.” That is, those among us the most attached to men being men and women being women and there being no choice inbetween are also the most likely to believe a woman was "asking for it" if someone rapes her. These are the kind of people who believe that the gender binary protects them, that if they play by the rules, they won’t get hurt. They’re wrong, of course, when it comes to rape. But when it comes to the violence and discrimination hurled regularly at the Caster Semenyas of the world, they’re far too right – reactionary hatred toward the messy reality of gender is paid for not by those who espouse it, but those who symbolize it. And that’s why we’ve got to find a third, fourth, and fifth way to stop it once and for all.