Monday, September 14, 2009

Caster Semenya -- A Teachable Moment on Intersexuals

I didn’t know her name until last week. My regularly readers know I don’t follow sports regularly, and I had missed the news that in August, Caster Semenya, a teenage runner from South Africa, had become the 800-meter world champion.

We know her name now, because an Australian newspaper leaked the results of complex genetic and physical tests that allege that Ms. Semenya does not have ovaries or a uterus, but internal testes androgen insensitivity syndrome. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) says it is considering the results and will decide if she can compete as a woman in the future.

I don’t know enough about sports to have a reasoned opinion about how intersex people might participate in a world of “women sports” and “men sports.” I do know, though, that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, and I find most of the media treatment woefully ignorant about people who have what the American Pediatrics Association has named “disorders of sexual development.” I've cringed every time I've read the now-discredited term “hermaphrodite” to describe her.

This could be a teachable moment in our congregations and in our homes. As many as one in 1,500 babies is born with external genitals not easily identifiable as male or female, and many more people find out at puberty or later that they do not have organs, chromosomes or hormones that neatly fit into male or female definitions of biological sex. As the Religious Institute’s Open Letter on Sexual and Gender Diversity says, “binary thinking fails to reflect the full diversity of human experience and the richness of creation.”

Does your congregation have the resources it needs to welcome and support an intersex child or adult? If you are a religious leader, are you prepared to support families and individuals with these conditions? Do you know what resources are available? The Religious Institute’s new online guide, Acting Out Loud, can help you educate yourself and your communities about the diversities of human sexualities, including diversity of biological sex.

There is nothing new about biological sexual difference, nor about our call to understand sexual and gender diversity as a blessed part of our lives. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus embraces the eunuchs “who have been so since birth” (Matthew 19:12). The prophet Isaiah promises they will be blessed with “an everlasting name” (Isaiah 56:4-5).

May Ms. Semenya – and the millions of intersex people around the world -- receive that same embrace and blessing.


KarenE said...

This story comes at a great point in the history of our congregation as we start the Welcoming Congregation workshops. Thank you for your references.

Karen Eckberg - Green Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Kay & Sarah said...

Thank you for this post. My heart goes out to Ms. Semenya for having her medical information exposed to the public. This is something that she should have been allowed to have dealt with in private.

Chrystal K. said...

I feel so bad for her. I couldn't imagine having such intimate details of my life publicized in front of the whole world.