In March, World Athletics banned transgender women from competing in female world-ranking events. Henceforth, anyone who had gone through male puberty would not be permitted to compete: an update on the previous rules, which demanded that transgender women reduce their blood testosterone to five nanomoles per litre (nmol/L). Furthermore, anyone with differences in sexual development would now have to lower their testosterone from 5nmol/L to 2.5nmol/L to compete in any discipline.
The announcement was cause for rejoicing among those who worried that women’s sports were being taken over by natal males. But “for women like me”, writes Caster Semenya in The Race to Be Myself, the decision amounted to “a complete ban under the guise of a new regulation”.
Semenya is not transgender, but was born with differences in sexual development. She has a vagina, but no uterus; her body produces an elevated amount of testosterone, which, according to scientists who have carried out multiple tests on her, was because she has undescended testicles and “typically male XY versus the typically female XX chromosomes”. With this natural bodily makeup, Semenya has become a two-time women’s 800m Olympic champion. But ever since she won gold, aged 18, at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, her victories have been mired in controversy. She has been called a man; a freak; an “it”. Her career has been dissected and discussed, her wins lauded and pilloried.
Now, Semenya is offering her own version of her life story in The Race to Be Myself, a remarkable book that is by turns fascinating and horrifying. We learn that she has refused to read any of the medical reports produced about her. “I don’t care now what the medical findings are”, she writes. “I have a vagina. I don’t have a penis. I don’t have this Adam’s-apple thing men have. I don’t have a beard. I have breasts. I was born a girl and raised as a girl. That was and is the end of the argument for me. I refuse to be categorised as anything other than what I believe myself to be.”
That last sentence alone would be read in a very different manner were Semenya a trans man. Unlike the Limpopo of Semenya’s South African childhood, where gender is simple and even those “born with two genders” are left to themselves, in the West it has become something fraught, a frontline in the culture wars. Were Semenya growing up in Britain today, it’s possible that she would have been encouraged to identify as a boy. “I was what the Western world calls a ‘tomboy’,” she says. As a child, she preferred to run, hunt, box and play football with the boys than gossip with the girls, dress like them too – in boys’ school uniform – and fight, hard if necessary. She was attracted to girls, not boys, although “I have never been in a ‘closet’. I never hid who I was or felt I had to… If some boy tried me, I’d say it straight out, ‘I’m into girls. Maybe me and your sister can talk. And if you like your d—, let us not speak of this again.’”