Hazel McHaffie

South Africa

Gender, sex, chromosomes and other details

In our family, the two generations below me are runners. With the Edinburgh Marathon Festival in a matter of days now, we’re all gearing up – in my case just to be there at as many vantage points as possible to cheer them on as usual. In their case to be in peak condition to stay the course and surpass their personal bests. And this year is exceptional in that one of them (son-in-law) is doing the 5K, followed by the 10K on the Saturday, then the half marathon followed by the full marathon on the Sunday. Now, that’s keen! Super fit. Totally focused.

Although the competitors all run together, divided at the starting point into bands according to speed and ability, the results are announced by gender – fastest male, fastest female. So, X and Y genes do matter! But what if there are question marks over one’s gender? And that’s what’s preoccupying part of the sporting world at this precise moment. The male-female definition isn’t as binary as people used to think; about 1.7% present with atypical patterns of chromosomes and biological characteristics. And the South African runner, Caster Semenya, is caught in this hazy overlap.

It seems that all her life Caster has been portrayed as ‘a frea’. Imagine the burden of that!  As a youngster, she grew accustomed to having to show her genitalia to a coach before a race. The mind boggles. And since she rose to fame as a gifted athlete her success has been overshadowed by doubt, vilification and abuse. As it’s reported anyway, she was born intersex. But she was brought up as, and identifies as, a female. In the sporting world however, now she’s an adult, there are questions about her right to compete as a woman. She produces unusually high levels of testosterone. Such a fact must be difficult enough to deal with in one’s own local community; but because she’s an Olympic champion gold medallist, and because these results got into the wrong hands, her personal information has been paraded world-wide. And now she has – again publicly – lost her case to compete in her natural state. Henceforth she must take medication to lower her testosterone levels if she wishes to race against women. No one knows what that medication would/will do to her, but in her world every second counts.

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This is about much more than justice in sport; it raises huge ethical questions. In Caster’s case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has decided the rights of the individual must be sacrificed to ensure the welfare of the majority. They say their decision is ‘necessary, reasonable and proportionate’ in the interests of fairness. Is it? From her rivals’ point of view, I’m sure we can all appreciate that it does seem unjust to lose to someone with such a huge inbuilt biological advantage. But what about other athletes with inbuilt advantages – eg. swimmer Michael Phelps with his massive arm span and double-jointed ankles and low production of lactic acid which means he doesn’t tire as quickly as ordinary men? Should he have been disqualified?

And what about Caster’s own perspective? After being cruelly ridiculed for her body all her life, here was something she naturally excelled at, for which she trained hard, and now she’s being denied the opportunity to compete as the woman she is. Lose, lose. What a monumental injustice this must seem. In fact she’s shown immense dignity in the face of this latest humiliation. She admits to feeling upset and degraded by this ‘unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details’ of her very being. At the moment she’s contemplating leaving the arena. ‘I’m finished’ she tweeted when the ruling came through. ‘Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity.’ How desperately sad.

Why do I talk about this case on my blog this week? Partly because the questions it raises have been exercising my mind, and partly because it’s another example of the reality that there are very few absolute black and whites in the world of ethics – my world! And that’s before you start factoring in transgender athletes and self-assignment of gender and competing interests and … It goes on and on. Scrambles the mind, doesn’t it?

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A Scottish mystery

OK, duty done! I duly persisted to the end of Georgette Heyer’s mighty tome on Lord John of Bedford. So I’ve earned the pleasure of reading the book I was itching to get into: The Woman who Walked into the Sea, bought in the Outer Hebrides last month. And memories of those endless golden beaches, turquoise seas, alluring bays, came flooding back.

The author, Mark Douglas-Home, – yep, he is indeed the nephew of the former prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home – is a journalist turned author, with an interesting career start: as a student he edited a University anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and got himself deported! Now there’s tale to tell!! He now lives more quietly in Edinburgh and this is his second novel.

The story’s set on the North West coast of Scotland where, on 9 September 1983, a heavily pregnant Megan Bates walked across the sands of a remote beach into the cold Atlantic sea, and kept on walking. She was 33 years old and was wearing a loose white dress and a raffia hat with a broad red ribbon round it. Or so it was said. But the day before the sighting of Megan walking to her death, a baby girl was abandoned at the main door of Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, just before midnight, in a cardboard box, wrapped only in towels. There was no note, nothing to identify her apart from an envelope taped to the side of the box containing a brooch featuring violets, pinned to a small rectangular section cut from a green woollen cardigan. Could this have been Megan’s illegitimate child? Because of the brooch, the staff named the baby Violet.

26 years later, following a tip off from a social worker from Inverness, Violet Wells is searching for clues as to her biological mother’s life and intentions. Her journey takes her to the island where Megan lived and died. But the good people of Poltown give her a strange reception: there’s a local beach-combing farmer who says he loved Megan but who was accused by the police of killing her; a bitter elderly lady who was in service but has been soured by her treatment since the death of her employer; a stranger who attempts to abduct her. It seems the whole community is conspiring to keep its secrets buried and nothing is what it seems. Even Orasaigh Cottage, Megan’s rented home, is stripped of personality and bereft of any trace of her existence. And yet her possessions are preserved in a room in the ramshackle building belonging to a boy/man who believes her still alive.

Cal McGill is a private investigator and oceanographer brought in to locate things and people lost at sea, and currently not at all sure he does families any favours by doing so. He’s intrigued by this young woman who has suddenly left her flat in Glasgow and her four year old daughter, Anna, and come to this far corner, obsessed by her personal quest, reticent about sharing her own story. His knowledge of tides and flotsam makes him question the newspaper and police accounts of that time a quarter of a century ago. But his interest in this woman and her strange history soon leads to his personal safety being threatened as well as Violet’s.

Subtly, little by little, local characters let slip details and together Violet and Cal piece together a fragmented account – a tale of greed and jealousy, cover up and lies – until the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and the ugly truth is revealed.

It’s been likened to a Ruth Rendell mystery. I wouldn’t personally rank it in that school of writing but I enjoyed the unravelling and of course, the exploration of the parent-child bond as well as the importance of knowing one’s roots; both slot neatly into my own current preoccupations.

A relaxing diversion before getting back into my own novel which is now on the downward slope to a conclusion. Very exciting to be counting down.

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