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Caster Semenya, Alan Turing and "ID Management" products

caster-semenya-cover-girl.jpgSouth African runner Caster Semenya won the womens 800-meter, and the attention raised questions about her gender. Most of us tend to think of gender as pretty simple. You’re male or you’re female, and that’s all there is to it. The issue is black and white, if you’ll excuse the irony.

There are reports that:

Two Australian newspapers reported Friday that gender tests show the world champion athlete has no ovaries or uterus and internal testes that produce large amounts of testosterone. … Semenya is hardly alone. Estimates vary, but about 1 percent of people are born with abnormal sex organs, experts say. These people may have the physical characteristics of both genders or a chromosomal disorder or simply ambiguous features. (“When someone is raised female and the genes say XY,” AP)

For more on the medical end of this, see for example the “Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders” in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The athletics associations rules don’t cover all of these situations well. The real world is far messier and more complex than most people have cause to address. There are a great many apparently simple things that are really complicated as you dig in.

What the sports associations and news media are doing to Semenya is reprehensible. (There are over 10,000 stories listed on Google News, versus 13,000 for Derek Jeter, who just broke a Yankees record.) She didn’t come into running knowing that she had no ovaries. Having to deal with the identity issues that her testing brings up under the harsh light of the entire world (including me) is simply unfair.

It’s unfair in almost the same way as the British government’s treatment of Alan Turing, the mathematician who Time named one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century for his fundamental work on computers and cryptanalysis. Turing was also a convicted homosexual who committed suicide because of his “treatment” with estrogen, which caused him to become impotent and to develop breasts.

This week, Gordon Brown issued an apology entitled “Treatment of Alan Turing was ‘appalling’:”

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

Sports officialdom and state governments are different. Sports are voluntary associations, although athletes have little influence on the choices of international sports functionaries. Either way, watching the chaotic world crash onto the inflexible bureaucracies is tremendously frustrating to me.

As more and more of the world is processed by Turing Machines, assumptions that seem obvious to the programmer are exposed harshly at the edges. A friend with a Juris Doctorate recently applied for a job online. The form had a field “year you graduated from high school” that had to be filled out before she went on. Trouble is, she never did quite finish high school. She had the really relevant qualification-a J.D. from a good school. But she had an emotionally wrenching choice of lying on the form or not applying for the job. She eventually chose to lie, and sent a note to the HR people saying she’d done so and explaining why. I doubt the fellow who wrote that code ever heard about it.

I have a challenge to anyone involved in creating an online identity management system: How well does your system handle Semenya?

The typical answer is either that “that’s configurable, although we don’t know if anyone’s done exactly that” or “she’s an edge case, and we deal with the 95% case really well.” If you have a better answer, I’d really like to know about it. And as a product guy, those are likely the decisions I’d make to ship.

I’ll close by echoing Brown’s words: We’re sorry, you deserve so much better.

5 comments on "Caster Semenya, Alan Turing and "ID Management" products"

  • My answer would depend on why information on users’ sex is being collected in the first place. If there isn’t a good answer, I’d recommend not collecting it in the first place.
    The reason it matters for sport is (I assume) that if there were mixed events in many sports, sportswomen would be unable to effectively compete.
    For other purposes it could be the answer to that question is different, which points to one of the problems of online identity management systems.
    But more realistically, I’d probably make it an optional question. People in edge-cases could leave it blank. I’d guess most people ask that question out of vague data-hoarding desires, and perhaps for statistical reasons. Here, having some missing entries isn’t a big deal.

  • Edmund Blackadder says:

    > vague data-hoarding desires, and perhaps for statistical reasons
    This leads toward discussion of where people ask questions on things like ethnicity (e.g. job applications) and marital status (e.g. opening bank accounts) where I prefer not to answer and they usually begin by saying I have to or the application will be rejected.
    I won this argument with Lloyds TSB bank and although their computer insisted on some sort of an entry we “pinned the tail on the donkey” to give it something random.
    Employers tend to think that a stated ethnicity is necessary – I think it’s fairer not to ask. And I think fairness is a better goal than equality.

  • rob sama says:

    Adam? Everything ok with your genitals there buddy? There isn’t something you want to tell us now is there?

  • Chris Walker says:

    Programmers are often required to implement poor ideas. Having a set list of characteristics for a person can be problematic. The root cause of the problem is that the athletic bodies want to have two classes of competition ignoring the Special Olympics for now. We now understand that this is too simplistic.
    The Seattle schools had a problem a while ago when they were trying to balance race in schools. A child was assigned only one race which allowed some parents to pick the race that would get their kids into preferable schools.
    You can either stop discriminating or allow for these sorts of cases. But if you allow for them, you need a policy no doubt.
    In the end, I agree that it is terrible for this athlete that this is playing out in public. But in the end, it has probably raised the public’s awareness of these conditions and may eventually reduce or eliminate the stigma surrounding these conditions. (Always looking for the silver lining)

  • David Brodbeck says:

    It sometimes surprises me what websites demand to know my gender. I can understand this when there’s some need to match it up with official ID or the like…but why do Facebook and Second Life have a pressing need to know about my biology? Sure, it’s simple for me to answer, but I’ve known people for which it was a more complicated question, and that’s made me more aware of the burden that’s created by asking unnecessarily. I think often the question is asked for no good reason, just because it seems like an obvious and harmless one.

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