Saturday, September 12, 2009

Caster Semenya and Intersex: On Not Seeing What Is Right in Front of Us

I’m fascinated by the twist that the controversy about the gender of South African athlete Caster Semenya has taken. Tests are now indicating that Semenya is intersexed. The controversy and this finding are fascinating for a number of reasons.

▪ First of all, the controversy demonstrates how important it remains for many of us—perhaps for most of us—to be able to place people in either-or, male-female, insider-outsider categories. Perhaps in the world of sports more than any other.

The central legitimating symbols around which everything revolves in our society appear, to many people’s minds, to demand such either-or decisions, particularly with regard to gender. Our worlds fall apart when men aren’t men and women aren’t women—particularly when sportsmen aren’t sportsmen.

▪ And so the finding that Semenya is intersexed is extremely problematic, particularly for those of us who have a great deal invested in shoring up those central symbols we choose to regard as world-making or world-breaking. Men have to be kept in men’s place and women in women’s place, or the world will crumble into pieces.

And God has to be involved in that task of maintaining the world, because that’s what God is all about in many people’s imagination: God makes and sustains the world, and to question or change the central symbols around which everything revolves is to challenge God.

The fact of intersex—the sheer, simple biological fact that some people are born neither biologically male nor biologically female, but somewhere in between—powerfully deconstructs what has now become perhaps the dominant ideology of control within the Christian churches today: the assertion that the scriptures and redemption are all about separating male from female and adhering to the divinely given roles ordained by God for each gender.

As I’ve noted extensively on this blog (see all postings with the label “male-female complementarity”), we’re living through a moment in the history of Christianity in which those who have everything invested in maintenance of patriarchy are trying to invent a novel Christian system of thought in which everything is hinged on biological gender complementarity and gender roles that ostensibly flow from that complementarity.

While claiming to be defending perennial Christian tradition, some groups within the churches are creating an entirely new system of belief—an entirely new gospel, as it were—in which everything is about being male or female and behaving accordingly. In this way of thinking, the whole path to redemption depends on the willingness of men to assert themselves as men, and the willingness of women—above all, this willingness—to submit themselves obediently to men. Those preaching this gospel want to warn the world that any deviance from this divinely ordained path will result in the dissolution of society as we know it—the unmaking of the world.

The fact that some people do not fit neatly into either category—a well-known fact of which the Semenya case only reminds us, a fact we are prone to forget in our eagerness to read things as neatly split by gender—completely deconstructs the central contention of the new theology of male-female complementarity in which patriarchal churches are investing everything.

Those churches want to remind us that God makes everything. God makes us as we are. It is God who makes male and female. And so their own belief in God as creator places them in a theological quandary when they encounter the actual biological diversity of the created world.

And so it is God who makes the intersexed. The existence of intersex poses an insuperable theological challenge to those intent on dividing the world between male and female and assigning all of us gender tasks based on that division. God makes intersexed people because intersex plays a role in God’s divine plan for the world.

If nothing else, perhaps intermediate gender status exists as a reminder to us not to do precisely what those intent on hinging everything on gender complementarity want us to do: not to divide everything into neat either-or, above-below, inside-outside categories. With regard to gender and gender roles, the phenomenon of intersex reminds us (in the name of God, it would appear, if we believe that God is the author of nature) that there may well be many ways of being male and female in the world—ways that exceed and subvert the expectations of those intent on using gender distinctions as control mechanisms in patriarchal social constructs.

God’s plan for the world may be all about diversity rather than order. To the chagrin of all of us who want to make God all about being the great orderer of our world . . . .

▪ As in so many respects, the role the mainstream media have been taking in reporting on the finding that Caster Semenya is intersexed is less than admirable. The media are doing everything possible to avoid using the term “intersex” to refer to the conclusion of the tests done to determine Semenya’s gender. Instead, they talk about the absence of a womb and the presence of male hormones—as if Semenya is a woman who happens to have a few biological quirks that push her femininity in a masculine direction.

The biological fact of intersex threatens those who want to ground social reality in biological gender distinctions and gender roles dependent on those distinctions. The media do everything in their power to keep that fact out of our consciousness. They are doing everything in their power to avoid educating us about the reality of intermediate gender in the case of Caster Semenya.

And it’s a testament to the power of the media, religious groups, and other crafters of dominant meaning in the various cultures of the world, that people like Caster Semenya can grow up intersexed and unaware of their true nature, as their families, friends, and teachers—and often, they themselves—have no knowledge at all of their authentic biological nature. We evidently have so much invested in seeing things as it pleases us to see them, that we often cannot see what is right in front of our eyes when seeing forces us to alter our most deeply held convictions.

The graphic for this post is from a 2000 PBS interview with Baptist minister Rev. Jerry Falwell.