EXCLUSIVE: As controversial world champion runner Caster Semenya is reported to have both male and female sexual characteristics, Sarah Graham, 40, writes about her own life as an intersex woman..
My heart goes out to Caster Semenya, few can imagine what it feels like to have your whole world turned upside-down – as hers has been.
I really do feel for what Caster’s going though – the shock, fear, doubt, sudden sense of being very alone in the world. And the terrible dawning question – who am I? Will people still accept me?
Will anyone be able to love me, if I’m not a normal woman?
I found out the truth that I’m intersexed in a very sudden, shocking way.
Although I don’t wish to speculate on Caster’s diagnosis – that’s her private business – I want her to know that she is not alone. And only she can decide her gender – nobody else can.
Like Caster I had absolutely no idea that I was intersexed – nor did any of my partners. But my doctor and gynaecologists did know the truth about my body.
I was lied to – and my parents were too. This wasn’t a one-off. It was standard policy (until the mid-1990s) to hide the truth about all intersex conditions like mine.
I was 25 when I found out the extent of the cover-up.
The shock of suddenly being told the true nature of my diagnosis – with no support and after being systematically lied to for so many years – nearly killed me. I went into an emotional meltdown.
What I found out – after years of being stonewalled – was that I’m an XY woman. I have a rare intersex condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).
Through reading my medical notes I found my doctors knew the truth about me when I was seven. They operated on me to ‘take out my ovaries, because they would become cancerous when I was a teenager’.
This was a horrible lie to tell a child and her family and left me living in fear that I would get cancer. The big dark secret about my body is that I’m the living embodiment of an apparent contradiction, (both female and male).
Put simply, my body looks outwardly female but I have male chromosomes and one or two other surprises internally.
My ‘ovaries’ were in fact testes. Which was quite a shock. (No really! I can laugh about it now, on a good day.)
Although it may be difficult to get your head around, if they’d left my body as it was I would have produced hormones naturally and not had a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy.
And ironically, my body is very insensitive to testosterone, so I don’t have big muscles or unwanted hair and have very soft skin. AIS women also tend to be above average intelligence – though the doctors don’t know why.
Caster’s only 18 and after years of hard work and training is just starting to realise her dreams of international athletic success, becoming world champion – winning the gold medal for 800 metres – in Berlin.
And now all anyone is talking about is: Is she or is he?
Her family say she is a woman and have raised her as such. It says ‘female’ on her birth certificate and Caster herself has never had any reason to doubt it.
Yes, she looks a bit androgynous and has lots of rippling muscles – but just look at the other female athletes. And when we are talking big biceps let’s not forget Madonna’s arms! (No one would dare question her femaleness. She’s too scary.)
But since a higher than normal level of testosterone was found in Caster’s blood, journalists and athletics fans have been whipping themselves into a near frenzy.
Last week results from the tests started being leaked and if these results are true it sounds like Caster is intersexed. But not a true hermaphrodite. Intersexuality is a word that is hardly ever mentioned in the media. When it is mentioned it is as some kind of slur. Something a bit seedy, dirty, and very wrong.
Intersexuality both titillates and frightens people because it threatens our very basic idea of how the world is made.
When a baby is born the first question anyone asks is is it a girl or a boy. That’s it. Two options: pink or blue. But the truth is that nature isn’t that clear-cut.
The really shocking truth is that in the 20th century there was a massive cover-up of this. The medical and legal know-it-alls tried their very best to erase intersexuality from society.
They took it upon themselves to try to force everyone into two categories: male or female. Nothing else was acceptable.
Not much has been written about the genital surgery done to babies and young children in Europe and North America to make them look ‘more normal’.
These operations are often for cosmetic reasons and are frequently damaging to adult sexual feeling and/or fertility.
And because vaginas are easier to make than functioning penises, 90% of intersex babies emerge from surgery as girls.
This disregarding of intersex children’s human rights is starting to be challenged. But surgery is still happening.
When an intersex baby is born, an ‘expert’ is called to decide which sex to assign it to and the parents are often pressured to go along with this decision.
There are several types of intersexuality and although you’ve probably met one of us, without knowing it, we are a largely invisible oppressed minority.
The fear, fascination and loathing our bodies provoke in our culture has held the power to shame and silence me for years. Caster’s public outing will be enormously painful for her but she has an incredible gift to offer the world.
It’s time people were better educated about intersexuality – so that the 4% of us who are ‘special and different’ can be ourselves.
I hope the South African people will continue to stand by Caster and give her the love and support she will really need.
Not all societies are prejudiced. Native Americans honour intersex people – seeing us as the best warriors and healers, and call us “two-souls”.
After my diagnosis nearly killing me and ending up addicted to drink and drugs, I did rehab in 2001 and rebuilt my life. I’m now a counsellor with my own company helping people learn to be happy with who they are.
On a personal note, I’m now very happy with who I am and on December 12 last year, I married my partner. I don't ever regret being born intersex now – except for the infertility– because it has made me very strong and understanding of our human similarities and the differences that make us each unique.
And as for whether being intersexed gives Caster an unfair advantage? I was pretty quick at the 800 metres myself but sadly, I don’t have any gold medals.
She has worked very hard to be a great athlete and deserves her medal and any future success. Let her keep it.
WHAT IT MEANS
One in every 2,000 people are born with some kind of intersex condition. This means at birth there may be questions about the sex of the child because there is a mix of male and female body parts.
Many cases go un-noticed because the child looks male or female and it is often not until puberty it is discovered. Britain is at the forefront of research into how this is treated.
Star athlete Caster is said to be on suicide watch in South Africa and receiving trauma counselling.
“No young woman can easily accept that she has male sex organs,” explains specialist plastic surgeon Chris Inglefield.
“It is terribly distressing and even if she had her suspicions, Caster is likely to have been deeply in denial about it all.
“Caster will need a lot of support and compassion as she struggles through this horrendous, shocking
experience with the eyes of the world watching her.”