The XX Factor

You Can Be a Hermaphrodite and Not Know It

Jess, it’s perfectly possible that Caster Semenya never knew about her condition. Early reports say she is a hermaphrodite , which means she has no ovaries or uterus, but she does have testes, although if they are undescended she would never know. Women with her condition often don’t discover it until their teen years. The first clue might be that they don’t get their periods. But female athletes often don’t get theirs, so Semenya could have slipped by longer.

The South African authorities watching over her case are clearly confused about what’s going on, or else willfully deluded. “It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 percent,” said Pierre Weiss, the general secretary of the IAFF. Another official called it “gossip” and “rumor.”

But, of course, it’s a condition well-covered in the medical literature. From the major clue we have-high testosterone-the culprit is likely CAIS (Complete Androgyn Insensitivity Syndrome), says Eric Vilain, a geneticist at UCLA who specializes in unusual sexual development. A woman like this would be genetically XY, not XX. If this is true of Semenya, the South African sports authorities would know that by now, since results of basic genetic testing take only a week, says Vilain. But nobody would know what to do with that information-XY, and a girl? That would cause outrage.

The tragedy of Semenya’s case is that it’s being played out in public. ( Her new femmed-up look that Dayo pointed out -glossy lipstick, disco top, gold bracelets-is the most egregious example.) When teenage girls discover they have the condition, a good doctor would prescribe a long period of introspection, so they can figure out, without the influence of peers, parents, or glossy magazines, who they really are.

Vilain is an especially honest researcher in a highly politicized field. When I first asked him, he said that Semenya should probably not be allowed to compete against other women. The testosterone, he surmised, would give her an unfair advantage.

We were talking on cell phones and got disconnected, and in the span of time it took to call back he reconsidered. Testosterone levels in men are highly variable, he said. A man with naturally high testosterone would never be disqualified from competing. We don’t disqualify basketball players for being unusually tall, or tennis layers for having bigger biceps. “The problem is,” he said, “sports is inherently unfair.” What he mainly wanted to emphasize was that it’s the sports categories-men vs. women-that are artificially rigid, and reflect nothing about the reality of gender itself.

In all her public quotes, Semenya has been chipper and girlish. “I’d like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance,” she told YOU , which published the glossy photos. Poor girl. In their eagerness to turn her into the “golden girl” the South Africans have had to rob her of any personality. Susan Boyle was put through the predictable, ruthless TV glamour machine. Semenya’s story is weirder and sadder, as she’s obviously being shoehorned into dreams she never had.

Semenya might very well be, chemically, and genetically, a boy. The intersex heroine of Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides ’ excellent novel, has a similar discovery. She deals with it by running away from home and going through a dramatic, reckless process of self-discovery, and ultimately decides to live as a man. You can imagine many different reactions a teenage girl might have to receiving the news that she is XY and has testes. Chirping about new dresses is not a likely one.