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Who loses when trans women win? The trans debate is harming intersex people like Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya. Credit: Saeed Khan AFP/Getty

Caster Semenya. Credit: Saeed Khan AFP/Getty


July 6, 2021   5 mins

What makes a woman? According to the International Olympic Committee, the most important thing is what she lacks: specifically, she must not have more than the regulation level of testosterone.

That’s the level that Laurel Hubbard (a mediocre male weightlifter from New Zealand who now identifies as a woman) was required to maintain for a minimum of 12 months in order to compete at this year’s Olympics against women. That’s also the level that South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya (who won gold in the women’s 800 metres in 2012 and 2016) refused to medicate herself down to. Consequently, Semenya is banned from defending her title in Tokyo. (Although eligible for the 5,000 metres, she did not qualify.)

For over a decade, Semenya has been both a celebrated athlete and the object of harsh, probing curiosity. In 2008, when Semenya was the world champion in the 800 metres, the journalist Ariel Levy visited Semenya’s former club in the devastatingly poor Limpopo province. Here, Levy met a small girl who informed her: “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.”

But even before Semenya had made a name beyond her birthplace, it was being asked whether it was right for her to compete at all, never mind win. There were murmurs that Semenya — tall, narrow-hipped, flat-chested, deep-voiced and powerful as she was — must have an intersex condition. Bluntly, people wondered: was she female at all? Semenya’s former coach told Levy that the young runner was routinely summoned to the toilets so she could prove to her rivals that she had the right genitals for her race.

If Semenya was able to accept such intrusions philosophically at first, over time they became more and more profound, until eventually she found herself in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2019, fighting against the requirement to suppress her natural testosterone levels. (The 5 nmol/L ceiling is still over twice the normal level for women.) CAS ultimately upheld the limit: the judgment it issued is lengthy, technical and heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking, because what is clear throughout Semenya’s testimony is that she has never doubted that she’s a woman. The public scrutiny of her sex, she said, had been “atrocious and humiliating” — and discriminatory too, since she argued that no comparable questions would be asked of a male athlete. The medication she took to reduce her testosterone made her ill, and any drop in her performance should be put down to that rather than seen as confirmation that she had an unfair hormonal advantage. It felt, she said, like a “punishment” for her body.

Sport is nothing without fairness. Every race, every match, every competition is a quest to find — and to reward — the exceptional within a given discipline. It’s true that without diligent training, even the most physically gifted will never make it within sight of the podium; but it’s also true that without those physical gifts, no amount of graft will turn you into an athlete. Beyond issues of basic safety, the baseline logic of every rule in sport is to exclude external influences that might obscure the quest for excellence.

That’s why doping is banned. It’s why running shoes and swimming costumes (and, in the Paralympics, prosthetics) are exhaustingly debated: at what point does “more efficient” shade into “cheating”? It’s why there are separate male and female competitions: the inarguable advantages produced by a male puberty in terms of height, strength and speed mean that in a mixed competition, outstanding women would always be overshadowed by men. And it’s why the Semenya question is so painful.

Clearly, her treatment has been unfair, and worse than unfair. There’s a grotesque, prying quality to reading the CAS judgment as it itemises her body, the contents of her blood, the nature of her chromosomes. But those chromosomes are 46XY — that is, male. Should her female competitors accept that as fair? As hard as they push their bodies, and as much as those bodies have to give, there are things that the XX will never be able to achieve.

It’s important to note that even Semenya’s best performances have never approached the speeds that men achieve. She doesn’t even hold a world record. But she did come close to breaking the women’s 800 metre time, which was set in the doping heyday of the Eighties. In other words, Semenya is suspiciously fast for a woman, but not fast enough to be exceptional as a man. She’s stranded in a hinterland of sex that makes her talent seem either excessive or inadequate. Extraordinary as she is, there’s no way for her to win.

Semenya is the most prominent athlete caught in this hormonal bind, but not the only one. In 2014, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was barred from competition over her elevated testosterone (she successfully appealed the decision); last week, Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were both disqualified from the 400m in Tokyo for the same reason. Ugandan runner Annet Negesa had surgery to “fix” her intersex condition: her performances never recovered. For any athlete in this situation, the experience is intrusive, cruel and devastating. Some will have no idea that there’s anything unusual about their body until it becomes a matter of public dispute.

Proponents of trans women’s inclusion in female sports will often point to such examples as evidence of the egregious effects of gatekeeping sex. See, they say — by trying to keep males out, you only harm women. It’s even argued that the suspicion of Semenya is a form of racism, since her masculine appearance defies white beauty standards (although it’s clearly not Semenya’s race that makes her, in Levy’s description, “breathtakingly butch”). None of which has any relevance to Laurel Hubbard, who is unambiguously male and undeniably white.

There’s a terrible injustice in Hubbard being able to compete at Tokyo while Semenya cannot. The extent of testosterone’s effect on Semenya’s body is debatable; the extent of its effect on Hubbard, who has been through a regular male puberty, is not. And reducing the circulating testosterone in a male body can make an individual slow in comparison to a man, but it doesn’t make them female: the advantages of sex remain long after transition. Hubbard will never be forced through the cruel exposures inflicted on Semenya, because Hubbard’s sex is not in doubt.

Despite trans activist efforts to treat “intersex” and “trans” as indistinguishable issues, they are simply not the same. One of Semenya’s objections to enforced testosterone regulation was that it was an attempt “to convert the DSD [difference of sex development] Regulations into a shadow transgender rule”. The effects of male adolescence being what they are, “transgender” can be read as “transwomen” here: trans men present no challenge whatsoever to the integrity of men’s sport. In other words, Semenya believed that a rule targeting intersex women was actually being shaped by consideration of male athletes who wished to enter female competition.

If that’s true, it’s typical. Repeatedly, intersex people’s lives are hijacked to prove that “sex is a spectrum”, so that undoubtedly male people can pretend the class of “female” is too hazy to exclude anyone from. But sex is not a spectrum. Every difference of sex development is an atypical presentation of either the male or female body — there is no “in-between”. Every person with a DSD deserves considerably better than to be recruited as a human shield for the infiltration of femaleness. People with DSDs have long campaigned against compulsory treatments; trans activists argue that without surgery and hormones, trans people will die.

In sport, sex should be simple: the case for separate male and female competition is so stark that only a blindness to women’s interests could lead anyone to neglect it. But in sport, sex is inevitably complicated: the very pertinence of sex to performance means that women with intersex conditions are liable to come under question, and every case will have its own subtleties. What shouldn’t be difficult is this: whatever “being a woman” means, there’s more to it than a deficiency of testosterone, and treating a woman like Semenya decently cannot require dissolving the notion of “women” altogether.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
3 years ago

While CS’s case is tragic, I don’t think the decision by the Olympic Committee was exactly unreasonable. Genetically, her chromosomes are male (XY), and the additional testosterone levels which are way above the upper limit of the female range, give her a very distinct advantage. In essence it’s the naturally achieved equivalent of testosterone doping used by the old Soviet Union and East Germany on their female athletes.
As for trans athletes competing in women’s sports, that should not be allowed irrespective of testosterone levels, precisely because they underwent male puberty which again gives them a massive advantage of their real female competitors. If trans athletes want to compete in sports, how about they compete against like trans athletes.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

An excellent essay looking at the complexity of this issue. Anyone with an ounce of empathy would agree that the treatment of Semenya has been unnecessarily publicly cruel and heartless. Certainly extreme trans activism has hijacked the natural and complex intersex condition for their own purposes. And has won, if one considers that a full biological male is allowed to compete in women’s sport at these Olympics.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago

It’s interesting how much sympathy Semenya gets as opposed to those he/she runs against. Ethically, it seems that it would have been far more just and empathetic to bar Semenya from sports, and allow those who fall into the normal categories to compete on a level playing-field. The interests of the many must outweigh those of the few.

Al M
Al M
3 years ago

The testosterone level is a red herring. It should never have been introduced, appears to have little basis in science and seems only to function as a way for sport’s governing bodies to avoid conflict with aggressive campaign groups. Notably, World Rugby Union rejected trans athletes competing. It’s not hard to see why as law suits would have followed injuries as surely as night follows day.

The case of Caster Semenya is indeed complex, but perhaps the wrong focus. I do appreciate the author presenting the contrast in how the two athletes are being treated, but hard cases make bad law and all that.
My own view is that no female athlete should be forced to compete against people born male, either professionally or at amateur level, in any discipline where male bodies confer an advantage. The same thing would apply at a local squash club if some of the players in the male league decided to identify as female. I play squash with a female friend (well, before lockdown anyway), but it’s just for fun and exercise. It’s also our choice and nothing is a stake.

To answer Ms Ditum’s question: everybody loses. Organised sporting contests formed the way they did because the participants wanted it this way. The competitors accept that the limits are biological sex, even if you then have leagues based on age or ability. The consequence is that they accept that an exceptional athlete, male or female, is competing fairly and they will lose to them with grace. The sport and its competitions thus continue. What’s happening here is that competitive sport is being taken away from the vast majority, against their will, to satisfy the interests of an unreasonable minority.

Last edited 3 years ago by Al M
Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
3 years ago

I have a great deal of sympathy with Caster Semenya and the other athletes like her, but there has to be an upper limit to the testosterone levels in competition, as it is a performance enhancer. Without such a limit, it’s back to the old Soviet days of hormonal doping.

I think that the limit set by the governing body, which is exceedingly generous to cover all sorts of medical conditions that a woman might have which can elevate her T levels, is the only realistic path at present.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Not if the rule is made as hoc to target ONE individual.
And anyway, she hasn’t done anything wrong, yet she is penalised. She is female and that should be it. Tall females are at an advantage in some sports, stocky ones in others, even though their physique is way unusual for a female.
We segregate sports according to what your genitals are, that’s it.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

It isn’t just her, there are several top athletes from African countries that are also intersex. Training camps seek them out especially, apparently, because they had an excuse to have high testosterone levels that would bar other women. Caster Semenya just happens to be the one that gets the publicity.

Your concern seems to be with ‘unfairness’ to one athlete rather than to the vast majority.

David B
David B
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

She’s not female, she’s intersex, with XY chromosomes.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago

Seems simple enough, males who have gone through puberty should never be allowed to compete as females. Create a different league if they wish, but I suspect it would have few participants. Males who identify as females should be allowed to compete against other males if they wish. I suspect that arrangement allows them to compete, if simple performance is their goal. They won’t win very often, but they can compete.
No answer regarding XY females because they are quite rare.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
3 years ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

Transwomen already can compete against males – almost all sports don’t actually have a “men’s” competition, in that the governing bodies have no rules that mention sex or gender. They are, in effect, open to all, including females. It’s only women’s sport that specifies, and for obvious reasons.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
3 years ago

Feminists cut the ground from under their own feet by arguing that women were at least entirely equal to men in all respects and better than men at most things. The armed forces were required to recruit women to serve alongside men in physically exacting roles as were the fire brigades and police forces. Any suggestion that women were not equipped by nature to match men was given short shift. I’m not suggesting that there are not some women that can run faster than most men but women who can run fast can’t carry an average man on their shoulders whereas many men can. When you ignore facts because of political beliefs you end up in the fantasy world we have entered.

Last edited 3 years ago by David Uzzaman
Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
3 years ago

Allowing male trans athletes in female sport is the end of female sport. In a couple of olympics time, all the women’s 100m medals will all be taken by athletes born male. That is now inevitable – unless women boycott all events where a trans athlete has been selected. That will force a realignment.

Alternatively, the entire trans class should be moved into the paralympics. There’s not meant to be a stigma to that, at least since Britain did it so well in 2012. We can celebrate difference there – and keep women’s sport for women.

Last edited 3 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Sue Ward
Sue Ward
3 years ago

If we are to believe that a man who identifies as a woman can compete on a level playing field with natal women can someone explain to me why transmen fail to compete with natal men. Surely declaring “I am a man” automatically increases muscle mass and bone density in the same way as declaring “I am a woman” automatically reduces them? #askingforafriend

Last edited 3 years ago by Sue Ward
Sue Julians
Sue Julians
3 years ago

It’s very interesting and I don’t know the answer. That CS is a woman isn’t up for debate, though.
I do worry that countries with a history of cheating will seek out XY females to train though, like the biopsies and doping regimes of the past. And apparently all 3 medallists in the 800m in 2016 were XY females, so it may already be happening.
We are a long way from knowing if a female without retained testes can realistically compete with one who has. But, being of the view that female sports are supposed to test the best that the machine of a female body can produce, I’m of the view that this should be allowed, because she is undoubtedly female.
It remains a scandal that Hubbard can compete and she cannot, knowing what we now know about the advantages of undergoing a male puberty, which are never fully reversed: the World Rugby analysis suggested that only about 10-30% of the advantage is lost by lowering T. (sport dependent). If I were being cynical I’d suggest that male privilege and misogyny plays a part in this.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

Can you explain your list sentence please 


Sue Julians
Sue Julians
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Women’s sport categories have not been around for long. IIRC Hubbard’s event only since 2000. There are people who don’t think women should have their own category of sport, that it should be about who is the most able of either sex. There are also people who feel that women’s rights have gone too far, and the removal of single sex exemptions is a justifiable backlash to gains made in equality.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

Thanks – I would hope that those who hold views like this are very rare.

Sue Julians
Sue Julians
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I direct you to David’s comment below.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

There are sports where strength or stamina are not factors, such as pool or chess, and most equestrian sports, where there’s hence no obvious rationale for having separate women’s events. Where these are factors, then women clearly won’t be able to compete.
I’ve only ever heard it suggested rhetorically that there should not be separate events for women, usually in response to feminist suggestions that the reward structure is unfair.
For example, I recall some complaining from the usual suspects that it is unfair women footballers are paid less than men, and that somehow they should be paid the same. In fact, at the last women’s football world cup, the tickets for the final were ÂŁ10 whereas for the men’s event I think they started at about ÂŁ40 or ÂŁ50. Women aren’t paid less because they’re women; it’s because they aren’t very good, and nobody wants to watch it.
The market assessment of the value of the spectacle is borne out by the results. The reigning women’s football world champions were defeated 5-2 in 2017 by an American school team of 14 to 15 year old boys; the Australian national team lost 7-0 to 15-year-old boys in 2016; the Swedish women’s team – runners-up in the previous World Cup – lost to a team of schoolboys in 2013. Teams of women routinely score 8, 10, and more goals against each other. So the standard is demonstrably very low. You’re not watching the best football in the world; you’re watching football played as best women can manage to play it, which is badly; about like a Year 10 inter-school match.
Women have also argued that they should be paid the same for winning Wimbledon as the men, even though they play only three sets rather than five.
In each case it’s as though there were a version of the men’s game in which the players all have their shoelaces tied together. It perhaps has curiosity value, but you can’t instruct people to like it, because it’s not very good. If you sold tickets to three Wimbledon or World Cup soccer finals, the men’s, the women’s and the men-with-shoelaces-tied-together, which will sell the most tickets? Which will exhibit the best play?
So you have to take a view and stick to it. Either women want to be considered men’s equals, in which case they should play in men’s sports, eg men at Wimbledon over five sets; or they should concede that actually the reason there are separate women’s events is that they aren’t as good nor as interesting to watch, have their own events, and accept that the rewards are allocated accordingly.
The inclusion of people like Caster Semenya into women’s sports is really little different in its effects from the prevalence of drug cheating. Yes, it spoils it for women, but so do drugs.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jon Redman
Sue Julians
Sue Julians
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That’s not the point I’m making though. I’m not making any of the arguments you list or pleas for increased pay.
You may not enjoy watching women’s football, clearly you have a pretty dim view of it. Or any other women’s sport. But many women like to watch other women’s sports.
It’s nice not to feel cut out from competitive sport, since without role models and women to follow, many girls drop out of competitive sport completely. They many have fewer people who watch, but that’s not an argument for them not to exist at all.

Ken Maclaren
Ken Maclaren
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

You’re correct all three medalists in the women’s 800m in Rio were XY females. The key for XY female athletes and their enhanced performance levels is they in effect go through male puberty.
It’s as much a socio economic issue. In first world countries the complications that puberty and XY females entails are addressed in infancy.
Science wise there’s no way CS and others should be allowed in women’s sport. Ethically it’s been handled appallingly by the IAF, the IOC and South African Athletics.
It doesn’t make good sport without addressing it properly.

Julia H
Julia H
3 years ago
Reply to  Ken Maclaren

Perhaps the answer is to have XX, XY and XY-female categories instead of simply male and female. That would eliminate the disadvantage to women of competing with intersex or trans women competitors, and the disadvantage to intersex or trans women of competing against men. They seem to have developed a system in Paralympic sports to recognise relative advantage and disadvantage so why not in able-bodied sports?

Julia H
Julia H
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

Can you explain how CS is undoubtedly female when she has XY chromosomes? If XY equals male then CS must have gone through a male puberty, and accrued the physical advantages, irrespective of which gender she identifies with.

Sue Julians
Sue Julians
3 years ago
Reply to  Julia H

It’s difficult. Her body cannot respond to the hormones, which is why it developed along the female line rather than the male.
It’s very complex though, and I’m no expert. So I’m not sure if she can be said to have gone through a male puberty because the T didn’t take effect.
This is why I don’t know the answer, it’s a very difficult one: and completely different the Hubbard who is not intersex.
I think the answer of XX and XY is probably right. But the whole discussion is mired in difficulty.

Colin Bradley
Colin Bradley
1 year ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

Hmmm . . . if CS truly is a woman how comes it he simultaneously is a father? I don’t know in which sense you mean CS is a woman, but biologically he is definitely a man.
Meet Caster Semenya’s Wife And Beautiful Children – ZAlebs

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

I can’t help noticing that ‘Caster Semenya’ is an anagram of ‘stray semen ace’.
Just putting that out there.

Jenn Usher
Jenn Usher
3 years ago

I am a transwoman who has undergone the necessary surgeries to make me feel 100% complete. However, I also recognize the truth that I am only as close an approximation of a woman as modern medicine can achieve. Much to my horror at the time, I underwent puberty and had to step forward and serve in the US military when my name was called.
Even at my age, as someone in my late 70s who is also fit and healthy – and despite undergoing gender reassignment surgery (GRS) – I am far stronger than almost any woman 20 years younger than me. This would also have been true when I was in high school and engaged, as a mediocre athlete, in track and field, in comparison with girls of my age at that time. That is reality.
So, in my opinion, it is absolutely unfair to girls and women to have to compete with transgirls, or transwomen who have undergone puberty, even with testosterone blockers, estrogen therapy and, if undergone, GRS. Having to do so will deprive natal girls and women of the recognition and rewards, including scholarships at the school level, that would otherwise be available to excellent female athletes.
The sole exception I would make would be for transgirls who start HRT before the onset of puberty and who have maintained it throughout the period of their athletic competition in women’s sports. I would certainly have done that had it been available to me at the time and had my parents been supportive. Perhaps the solution would be a separate category for trans athletes.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jenn Usher
Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago

What is the definition of “intersex”?

According to Wikipedia it seems to be a synonym of Hermaphrodite or “congenital eunuchs”, which hardly apply here.
Why do we need such a label, anyway??

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrea X
Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
3 years ago

The discussion starts from the wrong side on this:
fact: there are two categories in sport: men and women
fact: athletes need to be put in one of these groups to participate
unless a new category is created, or we consider the transgender as handicapped (?), would we all agree to exclude those, who we are not used to to classify, and tell them they cannot compete? moral question to be considered first.

Julia H
Julia H
3 years ago

But if it is also a scientific fact that there is an intermediate state that is neither man nor woman i.e. intersex, then surely the simplest solution is to create a third category for sport in recognition of that fact? Then nobody has their rights infringed.

Al M
Al M
3 years ago
Reply to  Julia H

You then have the problem of how many competitors you might have.

It’s a scientific fact that there is a number of intersex states, including different combinations of genotype and phenotype. It’s also difficult to find numbers regarding how many people are included in these various states. Advocacy groups include ‘hormone levels’ as one of the criteria, which may explain a postulated 1 to 2% of the population overall that such groups suggest.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
3 years ago

The rules of sport must be as fair as possible, but the maximisation of natural advantages is what it is all about, especially at elite level, so ‘fairness’ is not really the issue because nature is not fair. Do we have height regulations in basketball? Oxygen capacity handicaps in long distance running? As long as your natural advantage is well natural then that should be that. Just outlaw the rest.

Last edited 3 years ago by Martin Smith
Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
3 years ago

Is Hubbard certain to win gold? If not, then what?

David McDowell
David McDowell
3 years ago

“… at what point does “more efficient” shade into “cheating”? It’s why there are separate male and female competitions: the inarguable advantages produced by a male puberty in terms of height, strength and speed mean that in a mixed competition, outstanding women would always be overshadowed by men.”
This bit gives the game away. Why not have Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals for others who are disadvantaged by reason of other factors. Too fat. Legs too short. Arms too short. Why should females receive advantageous treatment purely because their disadvantage stems from biological sex rather than some other limiting factor over which they have no control? The answer is rooted in relativism as is the trans case.
Incidentally, no female athlete is forced to compete with someone born male or intersex because no one is forced to compete in the first place.

Last edited 3 years ago by David McDowell