How to perform a gender test.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Aug. 19 2009 5:59 PM

Am I Not a Woman?

How to perform a gender test.

On Wednesday, South African teenager Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the women's 800 meters at the world track-and-field championships. Semenya, however, hasn't had much of a chance to celebrate, as she's "been the subject of whispers and innuendos about her masculine body shape and facial features." As a consequence, the International Association of Athletics Federations has asked the runner to take a "gender verification" test. In 2006, Melonyce McAfee explained that it's not so simple to tell a man from a woman. The original article is reprinted below.

Indian runner Santhi Soundararajan may be stripped of her Asian Games silver medal, after the Indian Olympic Association announced Monday that she had failed a gender test shortly after competing. Is a "gender test" as simple as it sounds?

Advertisement

No. You can't tell for sure if an athlete is a man or a woman just by glancing at his or her genitalia. That's because some people are born with ambiguous sex organs, and others have a visible anatomy that doesn't match up with their sex chromosomes. Fears that male Olympic athletes might be competing as women led to mandatory physicals for females in the 1960s, which soon gave way to chromosome-based gender testing. Officials collected mouth scrapings and ran a simple test for the presence of two X chromosomes. The method proved to be unreliable, since it's possible for a biological male to have an extra X chromosome (XXY) or a female to only have one X chromosome.

The gender of an embryo is determined during its early development. If certain sex-determining genes are present, the fetus will develop testes, which in turn produce testosterone. It's the testosterone that makes the fetus into a boy. The genes that are important for this switch are generally located on the Y chromosome. By the 1992 Winter Games, officials started testing for one of these genes, called SRY—if you had it, you couldn't compete as a woman.

That test didn't work, either. Having the SRY gene material, or even a Y chromosome, doesn't always make you a man. Some people born with a Y chromosome develop all the physical characteristics of a woman except internal female sex organs. This can result from a defect in one of the genes that allows the body to process testosterone. Someone with this condition (known as "androgen insensitivity syndrome") might be XY, and she might develop testes. But she'll end up a woman, because her body never responds to the testosterone she's producing. Other signs of AIS include hairless genitalia and the absence of menstruation. (There are reports that Soundararajan had "not attained puberty yet.")

Since testosterone helps in building muscle and strength, a case of androgen insensitivity syndrome wouldn't give an XY-female athlete any kind of competitive advantage; if anything, it would be a liability. Seven of the eight women who tested positive for Y-chromosomal material during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta had some form of AIS. They were allowed to compete.

By the late 1990s, the International Olympic Committee turned to a more comprehensive evaluation by a panel of specialists to account for all these ambiguities. The panel now includes gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, and experts on transgender issues. The examiners still test for the Y-chromosomal genes; gynecologists perform physical exams; endocrinologists diagnose gene disorders and resulting hormonal conditions; and athletes may be given psychological help to deal with the situation.

Mandatory gender testing of Olympic athletes was stopped altogether in 1999, but Olympic and IAAF rules allow for gender tests if an athlete's gender is challenged by another athlete or team, or event officials. (Soundararajan's screening is said to have originated with such a protest.) Some athletes are called in for a complete exam after they give their urine sample during a doping test. Officials watch the whole process to make sure the athletes don't swap in someone else's pee, so they can flag anyone whose genitalia don't appear consistent with his or her stated gender.

Athletes who have undergone sex-reassignment are allowed to compete alongside their new gender, provided they follow regulations.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Dr. Myron Genel of Yale University, Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson of Baylor University, and Dr. Louis Elsas of the University of Miami.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Votes to Remain in U.K.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Can Democrats Keep Counting on Republicans to Offend Women as a Campaign Strategy?

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 19 2014 11:36 AM Breaking Up Countries Is Still Hard to Do
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 19 2014 11:37 AM Why Urban Outfitters and Other Brands Troll Their Customers
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 19 2014 11:32 AM Why Do Pirates Talk Like That?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 11:40 AM Apple Invented the Perfect Way to Handle Your Giant New Phone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM The Curious Incident of the Supernova in the Nighttime
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.