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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gender Bender

There's a story emanating from the track and field World Championship in Berlin last week that I think has a lot of bearing on our classrooms. You may have heard about Usain Bolt's record-breaking sprints and his virtually uncontested gold medals. While Bolt held center stage on the field, the subject of this post is another athlete who remains in the news even after closing ceremonies.

South African runner Caster Semenya took the gold medal in the woman's 800 meter last week. As challenging as that competition must have been to her physically and emotionally, this week she must face a far greater challenge than she could possibly have imagined. As a reward for representing her country, Semenya must undergo gender testing. You see, she has sort of a deep voice and a lot of muscle mass. So instead of celebrating a hard-earned victory, she must submit herself to a barrage of demeaning tests designed push her firmly into a well-labeled little box.

I almost don't even know where to begin.

Semenya is not accused of trying to cheat, but of perhaps unknowingly having a
medical condition that blurs her gender and gives her an unfair advantage over
other female runners.

Maybe I don't understand what a "fair" advantage is. No one claims we ought to revoke Bolt's medals due to his unusual height. Don't his long legs give him an unfair advantage over shorter runners? Don't all great athletes have something that sets them apart from the rest? How do we decide when things are unfair? I recognize that I have an extremely unfair advantage in life as a white male. Should I give back all the awards or recognitions I have received?

For female athletes, the answer is always the same. Women from Babe Zaharias to the present have had to defend their abilities by defending their gender identities. Not so for men. They may have to submit to drug testing on occasion, but no one asks them to prove their manhood. Why do we continually ask this of women? What would we do to them if they started to win against men, instead of merely proving themselves against fellow women?

I think maybe some of the debate stems from our mistaken notion that gender and sex are synonyms. Gender simply means kind or type. So although our species has but two sexes, it has many different genders. By confusing the two terms, we invite these kind of arguments. I wonder what this might lead to in the classroom. As girls make steady gains in stereotypically male subjects like math and science, should we be expected to call their gender identity into question?

"Great job on the math test, Sarah. Now please pee in this cup. What's that? No, we don't think you cheated, per se. We just think that your brain might be wired differently than the other girls. You may have an unfair advantage."

Maybe some of my readers can point to the flaws in my reasoning, but it seems to me that a persons identity is their own business. We ought to be celebrating the triumph of the human spirit, whether on the track or in the classroom. No one ought to be punished for excellence, and certainly not by a committee with DNA tests.

1 comment:

mathmom said...

If we agree that men and women should compete separately in some endeavors (sports) then we have to define what "man" or "woman" means. I agree with you that there's a fine line between a natural advantage and an "unfair" advantage.

Interestingly, in academic contests (Math Olympiads, Spelling Bees, Science Fairs, Geography Bees, etc.) we expect boys and girls to compete together, even though we know that boys and girls are typically wired differently and good at different kinds of things.

As with sports, individual differences are greater than average gender differences.

So maybe we should consider why we separate men and women for sports? Could women ever compete on even footing with men? Does it matter if they can't, or if only women with hormonal disorders can?

Just some thoughts. I don't think there are any easy answers here.