Caster Semenya

@Caster800m / Twitter Alex Dalbey

The scrutiny over Caster Semenya’s body is a study in racism, sexism, and transphobia

Transphobes are calling the IAFF ruling a win, even though Caster Semenya is cisgender.


Alex Dalbey


Posted on May 1, 2019   Updated on May 20, 2021, 1:33 pm CDT

A decade-long battle for South African Olympic runner Caster Semenya has culminated in the Court of Arbitration for Sport determining that she must take medication to reduce her testosterone in order to compete.

The scrutiny over Semenya’s body and gender started in 2009 when she was only 18 years old, and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) publicly announced she would have to take a sex verification test to prove she was female. Many in South Africa decried the testing as racist, arguing that Semenya was being discriminated against because of the standards of white womanhood. “Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl?” said Leonard Chuene, then-head of South African athletics, to the Guardian in 2009. “I say this is racism, pure and simple.”

The IAAF conceded after testing that Semenya was, in fact, a woman, and she was allowed to return to her athletic career. However, in 2011 the IAAF announced that women with the intersex condition of hyperandrogenism, which causes excess levels of testosterone, would have to take medication to lower their testosterone, claiming the condition gives those athletes an unfair advantage. They later changed the regulation to only affect women running in events from 400 meters to the mile. Semenya argued that this regulation specifically targeted her, but today the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld that policy. According to the Telegraph, Semenya said that all she wanted to do is “run naturally, the way I was born.”

The ruling exposes racism, ‘gender essentialism’ in sports

Women’s rights advocates should be horrified that a woman is being forced to alter her body in order to keep her athletic career going, and many are. But there are also many trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) who are celebrating this as a win, despite the fact that Semenya was assigned female at birth, and is therefore not a transgender woman. Despite much of so-called “gender critical” ideology being communicated as “women have vaginas, men have penises” there are now TERFs claiming that Semenya is not a real woman because of her testosterone levels. For many trans women and their feminist allies, the TERF response to this ruling reveals both the hypocrisy and the misogyny at the heart of TERF ideology, which poses increasingly narrow definitions of womanhood.

The ruling has also renewed criticisms of the IAAF as racist and sexist, notably requiring medical intervention to change Semenya’s so-called “unfair advantage,” but not requiring any such change for swimmer Michael Phelps, who was shown to have half the lactic acid of his competitors, and was celebrated as a “biomechanical freak of nature.” People angered by this ruling point out that when a white man had a natural genetic advantage, it was praised, while a Black woman is being punished for hers. Others noted that the decision may have been made to appease Semenya’s white competitors, who blamed losing to her on her testosterone, even when she came in first and they came in sixth.

The new rules will go into effect on May 8, meaning women athletes with hyperandrogenism who want to compete on the international stage will have to begin hormone treatment immediately, or risk being disqualified.


Share this article
*First Published: May 1, 2019, 1:47 pm CDT