South African runner Caster Semenya met unfair and premature speculation about her sex recently after the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF) announced in August that Semenya would undergo gender-verification testing.
Semenya attracted international attention last month after the 18 year-old athlete shattered the defending world champion’s record in the 800-meter event, clocking a time of 1:55.45. USA Today reports that the young athlete’s astounding record drew questions about her sex.
But as former IAAF medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist told The Associated Press, “There is no simple, single lab test that can tell if you are a man or a woman. It is not black and white.”
Nevertheless, the Australian-based newspaper Daily Telegraph claims that test results prove Semenya is intersex. Official test results, however, have not yet been released.
Unfortunately multiple outlets including ABC News, CBS News, and the Agence France Presse (AFP) incorrectly apply the term “hermaphrodite” to describe Semenya’s sex. As noted in GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, however, that term is problematic:
The word ‘hermaphrodite’ is an outdated, stigmatizing and misleading word, usually used to sensationalize intersex people.
It is important to note that the alleged results reported by the Daily Telegraph are premature and have not been verified by the IAAF.
If, in fact, tests conclude that Semenya has both male and female anatomy, the preferred term to describe her would be intersex.
Here is a relevant except from GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide:
Intersex: Describing a person whose biological sex is ambiguous. There are many genetic, hormonal or anatomical variations which make a person's sex ambiguous (i.e., Klinefelter Syndrome, Adrenal Hyperplasia). Parents and medical professionals usually assign intersex infants a sex and perform surgical operations to conform the infant's body to that assignment. This practice has become increasingly controversial as intersex adults are speaking out against the practice, accusing doctors of genital mutilation.
Time Magazine offered a comprehensive outlook on the overall story today including potential legal action by the South African government:
Speaking at a news conference in Pretoria on Friday, Sport and Recreation Minister Makhenkesi Stofile said he was "shocked and disgusted" at the treatment that Semenya has received from both the international media and the IAAF. He said lawyers were being consulted over possible human rights violations amid concerns that Semenya was tested without her consent.
GLAAD will continue to monitor this evolving story and work with media outlets to ensure that coverage stays within the bounds of fairness and accuracy. If you see stories that miss the mark or use problematic terminology please e-mail your concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org