There is No Binary.

As if we needed another reason to think Kai Wright is pretty much amazing. Wright talks about what Caster Semenya has lost, no matter what the outcome of her sex test is, and why the myth of sex being a binary is so very damaging:

But the reality is that Semenya may be neither “boy” nor “girl,” or could be both. And who cares? It happens. Our social certainty about the male-female divide is not supported by biology. As Northwestern University bioethics professor Alice Dreger told the New York Times last week, “As I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ”

Children are routinely born with cellular variation on the XX and XY chromosome sets that define boy and girl status. Hormone levels vary, too, as do the secondary traits we associate with a given sex. People have large, protruding clitorises; scrotums divided such that they look like labia; inactive hormone receptors and on and on. Anywhere from 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 2,000 births require specialists to assign a child’s sex, according to the Intersex Society of North America. After these assignments are made, cruel plastic surgeries to “correct” perfectly natural physical variations are often performed for no medical purpose whatsoever. Kids are mutilated to ensure they fit comfortably inside our mythical gender boxes.

We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re man-made, and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place.

This might be my first time ever saying it: kudos to The Root for running this piece. (Although I noticed that the editors removed the comment section that was up earlier. Reminds me of something else…)

10 thoughts on “There is No Binary.

  1. Grump August 26, 2009 at 5:28 pm Reply

    I ony partially agree with what she wrote. Unfortunately she totally did not mention the years of doping that certain countries did to their female athletes in order to gain an athletic edge in competition.

    • G.D. August 26, 2009 at 5:54 pm Reply

      Kai Wright is a man.

      • bitchphd August 27, 2009 at 12:00 am Reply

        How do you know? Have you “sex tested” him?

        Sorry. I couldn’t resist. It was just hanging there. So to speak.

        • shani-o August 27, 2009 at 9:36 am Reply

          Eh, you don’t need to sex test someone when they look like the gender they claim, apparently.

    • G.D. August 26, 2009 at 5:56 pm Reply

      And why should the doping issue be raised here? How is it relevant?

  2. Monie August 26, 2009 at 9:52 pm Reply


    I absolutely agree that Caster has lost a lot no matter what. How will she be able to gain endorsements after this? Companies are already squeamish enough about controversy. She, Caster, ought to be enjoying her success after becoming the World Champion in her distance instead of being subjected to this craziness.

    And on top of everything else I’ve heard that the IAAF said it could be weeks or months before they make a decision.

    • ladyfresh August 27, 2009 at 9:34 am Reply

      jeez i didn’t think of that. lord the woman is losing money on top of everything else ugh

  3. Rebel August 29, 2009 at 11:05 am Reply

    One of the most mind-blowing conversations I had was when a friend challenged me to think of sexual orientation as existing on a scale rather than as a gay/straight dichotomy. Since that conversation I’ve begun to view pretty much any human charactersitic (biological or psychological) as existing along a continuum. It’s still a pretty radical concept and a lot of people just can’t wrap their brains around it.

    I feel horrible about what Semenya is going through. The testing should absolutely have been kept confidential. She should not be subjected to all this controversy.

    But it does bring up the question, if sex/gender occurs along a continuum, how do you divide up the categories for the purposes of an athletic competition. Or do you?

  4. Caster Semenya’s Answer. « PostBourgie September 8, 2009 at 11:32 pm Reply

    […] Semenya, South African runner we’ve talked about here and here, got her nails painted and donned a sequined tunic in SA glossy You magazine. According to Tracy at […]

  5. Semenya May Be Intersex. « PostBourgie September 11, 2009 at 8:59 am Reply

    […] Sexism and Sports Tags: Caster Semenya A few days ago, I lamented that South African runner Caster Semenya was forced to perform gender to allay the public’s suspicions that she was a […]

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