On Legislating Our Bodies

If you’ve ever said “never again” or quoted that poem that starts, “first they came for,” you should be looking with deep concern at the recent decisions about Caster Semenya (a woman who can run really fast). She was told that if she wants to be called a woman, she needs to harm herself with chemicals – because she’s not feminine enough. There are so many things wrong with this, but let me list four:

  1. There are slippery slopes, and then there are heavily greased cliffs. If we agree that it’s acceptable to legislate someone’s individual, natural chemistry, there are no boundaries. Caster Semenya has already undergone physical inspection to assure that she is physically a woman. Think about that for a second. Now she’s going to have to alter her body chemistry to be able to say she’s a woman. That’s… that’s horrifying.
  2. To compete, Semenya will be forced to reduce her testosterone, despite the real health risks: “the list of potential effects of testosterone loss is long: hot flashes, decreased sexual desire, loss of bone density and increased fracture risk (osteoporosis), fatigue, increased risk of diabetes and heart attacks, weight gain, anemia, and memory loss. “Bad” cholesterol levels rise, particularly LDL and total cholesterol.” If you want to be woman enough, you need to harm yourself. It’s almost perfectly metaphorical.
  3. The gender differences here are pretty stark. Michael Phelps has a natural quirk in body chemistry that “apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he’s simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport.” We celebrate Phelps. We legislate Semenya. Why do you think that is?
  4. Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to dispute that this is fueled by irrational fear of trans people. For example, the “fair and balanced” network is stoking that fear by claiming this woman is trans (presumably because she doesn’t fit their preconceptions about what a woman should look like). But the reality is that many people remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea that someone might want to be a woman (or a man) when they weren’t born that way, and consequently we look the other way when they are sexually abused, bullied, beaten, and killed… or when biased legislation is passed. And again, while this is fueled by that fear, this is not about trans people. There is no evidence that trans people have any advantage in sports (if anything, the opposite).

Yes, I know – in 2019, there are just too many things fueling rage and despair. But we can’t put limits on our compassion.

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