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Policing Caster Semenya's gender

Policing Caster Semenya's gender

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Athlete forced to undergo "gender verification testing"
Hair above her upper lip. The deep timbre of her voice. A muscular build. Her flatter-than average chest. A growing fixation on these corporeal cues is replacing the cheers that first met teenaged South African athlete Caster Semenya when she took the 800m gold medal at the world championship in Berlin last Wednesday.

Eighteen-year-old Semenya, who grew up in the village of Fairlee in South Africa's rural Limpopo province, has been forced to undergo "gender verification testing" at the hands of a team that includes an endocrinologist, gynecologist, internal-medicine specialist and a psychologist.

As a long-time member of the queer community, I've met a lot of women with deep voices and/or facial hair. In fact, across most people I've met I've seen a wide range of behaviour and self-presentation across the spectrum of culturally defined "masculine" and "feminine" traits, regardless of whether a person identified as a man or a woman. Or defined themselves in some other way.

One of the competitors who lost to Semenya, sixth-place Elisa Piccione of Italy, complained to media: "to me, she is not a woman." Those grapes are worse than sour — they're bitter. And they were only a first wave of a bilious tide of commentary around the world from media sources and internet pundits, ranging from cruel and predictable jokes to demands that the public be allowed to examine her genitals.

Though the debate has been described as concerning fairness to the other female competitors, it reveals much about what happens when the realities of people's lives butt up against the limits of our socially constructed two-gender-only regime.

What about fairness to Semenya? If the jury in the midst of poking and prodding her determines that she is intersexed, she may be stripped of her title by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).

Mandatory gender tests for women athletes were discontinued many years ago because of they were deemed fundamentally demeaning. So there may be other intersex athletes competing — often, intersexuality (much like race, class or sexual orientation) is something that you cannot necessarily observe casually).

So essentially, Semenya is being discriminated against because of her non-gender-conforming appearance — and forced to prove whether she is "entirely female." Watching the results of the Berlin 800m competition, I'm most struck by the ways in which Semenya's body is similar to those of the other elite female running athletes — rather than the ways it is different.

Their bodies — tall, long-legged, muscular, very little to no breast tissue — are very much alike. I point this out not to objectify these women — rather to point out that while some could argue Semenya's appearance is quite different from the "average woman" (whatever that means), she and her peers are not quite that disparate at all.

The IAAF's fixation on Semenya's biological sex obscures other, non-penalized ways in which genetics may provide advantages to some people and not others. "Top athletes in general have superior genetics that give them an 'advantage' over their competitors, whether that's Michael Phelps' insanely big feet and double-jointed ankles, or Lance Armstrong's long femur size," commented UK-based competitive cyclist Maryka Sennema in The Science of Sport, a blog run by two prominent South African sports doctors.

And while the world of competitive sport may seem hyper-invested in the gender binary, the rest of society has not progressed that much either. Just last week, Mark Steyn wrote mockingly in Maclean's that "in terms of sexual identity, we're freer than almost any society in human history, at least in terms of our official validation of our choice to 'redefine' ourselves in defiance of biological and physical reality."

Steyn is admittedly a clown, but he espouses a very common point of view about the inviolability of two and only two genders, assigned at birth and easily identifiable unless there is something "wrong."

This simple conception belies the findings of developmental geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling, who wrote back in 1993 in The Sciences that "biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes — and perhaps even more."

The sports world needs to give some serious thought to how it handles natural variation in gender — especially in the case that Semenya is deemed either intersexed or male, despite her own self-identification as a woman. And in lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans circles, this is a good opportunity to consider how we understand and provide support to people — within and outside our communities — who feel they are, or are perceived to be, gender non-conforming.

This can mean being better allies to trans and intersexed folks, but also questioning the ways in which all queers can either benefit or suffer because of our gender identity and self-presentation. After all, one of the key cases fought by the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) last year centred on Khadijah Farmer, a masculine-appearing lesbian who was thrown out of a New York restaurant for using the women's washroom. TLDEF won the case.

Caster Semenya should not be placed on trial — it's our society's outmoded perspective on gender that's due for an overhaul. That race for equality won't be won until we're all free to safely cross the finish line together.

Comments

Joelle, please speak for yourself
Joelle said- "Intersex is a biological, physical issue, it's about the body and also about how intersex people are forced into a " norm born " mold that is in and of itself a lie. Being in the largest intersex org in world ( OII ), i can say this, intersex people are never consulted about being part of the LGBT, we are simply grabbed and pegged onto the letter string." Joelle needs to realize that she does NOT speak for IS people as a group, and that many IS people identify as gay, lesbian and bisexual just like in any other human population. To suggest otherwise is FAR more marginalizing to the identities and lives of IS people than anything in the original article, and is especially galling when it is suggested under some implied position of assumed authority ("Being in the largest intersex org in world ( OII ), i can say this...") To be clear- many IS people ID as being LGBT and to claim otherwise or treat them as inconsequential is to deny them the right to self identification and respect we all desire. She also does many intersexed people a great disservice with her implication that IS is *only* a physical issue- plenty of IS people have accompanying mixed or otherwise ambiguous gender identities that reflect their biology (a possibility acknowledged even in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for GID), but most medical protocols for the treatment of IS conditions either ignores gender ID completely, or treats it as nothing but a psychological matter, in EXACTLY the same way people with cross gender identities but no detectable biological IS condition- read: transsexuals- are. In this sense, IS is inextricably tied to LGBT- not only are IS people routinely treated as no better than "queers" and "mental cases" by bigots, even the medical community often treats them no differently.
lets be honest with ourselves
OK, IF YOU ARE A 15 YEAR OLD BOY WHO WANTS TO PLAY BASEBALL YOU DONOT SIGN UP TO A 12 YEARS OF AGE COMPETITION JUST ONLY BECAUSE YOU ARE AT LEAST 12 YEARS OLD, IN REALITY YOU ARE 12 YEARS OLD BECAUSE YOU MUST REACH 12 BEFORE YOU HIT 15. IF AN ODD-GENDERED PERSON WISHES TO COMPETE IN AN EVENT OF THIS NATURE THEN LETS BE HONEST WITH OURSELVES,"CASTER"HAS BOTH FEMALE AND MALE SEXUAL ORGANS(IN FACT NO OVARIES OR WOMB)WHICH MEANS SHE IS MORE MAN THAN WOMAN.WHICH MEANS SHE IS BOUND BY THE RULES TO COMPETE AS A MALE.IF "CASTER" DOES WANT TO COMPETE THEN HAVE "CASTER" COMPETE AS A MALE BECUSE THEN SHE WONT HAVE AN ADVANTAGE OVER WOMEN BUT THEN IN SENSE SHE WILL HAVE TO COMPETE WITH A HANDICAP AS SHE DOES HAVE FEMALE GENETICS.THE SOLUTION IS EITHER COMPETE WITH MALES OR START A HARD FOUGHT BATTLE TO HAVE COMPETITIONS OPEN UP AN EVENT CLASS THAT COINCIDES WITH ODD-GENDERED PARTICIPANTS
why the hate david
David I did not associate being trans with a putdown, you just did. I think it is the tone of your first post here that creates the sense of bashing, referring to Syms as a ninny while accusing him of being trans. I love trans men and count several among my friends and sexual partners. As to Syms being a propogandist, I think everything he states in this article is bang on. I also think the material he writes on is timely and needs to be discussed in the gay press and beyond.
--
"A South African woman, barely out of her youth, faces a team of scientific and medical experts in Europe [...] this vignette is reminiscent of the humiliating tale of Caster Semenya [...] Rather, it is the biography of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Venus Hottentot, who was stolen from her home in southern Africa in the early 19th century." Read more here: http://www.thegrio.com/2009/08/a-south-african-woman-barely.php
Further reading
Some other resources on the Semenya controversy that may be of interest to Xtra.ca readers. On race and allegations of racism: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/08/26/is-the-caster-semenya-sex-controversy-racist/ || From the sports-scientist perspective: http://www.sportsscientists.com/search?q=semenya || From the Sports editor of The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090831/zirin_wolf
why the hate
Keith toronto -- why would anyone associate being a transman with a put down. You must have issues to be so condescending. I thought Shawn Symns was a transman from previous articles and things he has written. I would assume someone writing for xtra would be proud of this mistake and not outraged. I think YOU need to do a bit of soul searching about your own diversity Kieth before you rant out. ps whether he is or is not trans, Symns is a terrible and boring writer -- a propagandist writed the same slogans over and over -- this is not a writer. it is a bore.
DEAR DAVID
Dear David First off if you are going to criticize someone spell their name right. That said I think Sym's article touched on some very valid points. Even as Semenya was welcomed to great praise in South Africa many people questioned why there were virtually NO white people there to greet her. And to imply that Syms is trans because he sympathizes with the plight of someone like Semenya only shows your lack of understanding for anyone who chooses to respect the diversity of people within the overall queer community and for that matter the world at large.
can you get another writer
Must you drag this PC ninny Shaun Syms out of his/her cage every few months? Every single article by this person is identical. You do not even have to read them to know precisely what this person will say. A regurgitation of every PC dogma tenet spoken in the lingo of the queer hierarchy is such a bore now. Surely someone else out there with a brain and not merely a clone drone could bring some freshness to these issues. Shaun Syms is a crashing 1998 queerclone bor(g)e. Are there no other transmen out there with a younger voice?
Race matters II
Now as for the response of South African officials, as much as they reflect the damaging legacy of colonial history, I do think there is room for some criticism. They say they accept their hero as female and that she is victim to European standards of beauty. This leaves an the impression that SA is more accepting of gender non-conformity than Europe, one that should be challenged; last year, nationally renowed South African women's soccer star Eudy Simelane was gangraped and murdered for being a lesbian. According to Human Rights Watch, "The apparent motivation for her killing was that she was a lesbian who fought back 'like a man." A report by the group ActionAID says that "corrective rape" of masculine lesbians is widespread in some parts of South Africa, and that one LGBT support group said earlier this year that they are dealing with 10 cases of "corrective rape" a week. There is so much to say about this case, and all of the stuff worth saying is complex rather than simple. I've reviewed dozens of articles from a wide range of perspectives and fields of expertise; I should probably post links to some of the more interesting ones.
Race matters
"And really: every time a person of colour is criticized or scrutinized is racist?" To me, this generalized statement is not that different from saying "They are playing the race card," which to my thinking is basically always problematic. I do think that the issue of race obviously does play into how the spectacle has played out in the press and blogosphere, from the (great) coverage in the Telegraph to the international forums serving the running community to South African media outlets to Facebook to other coverage.Being perceived as a man is one thing, but to be perceived as a black man (or, as some have bluntly put it, "a thug") does in fact seem to have a qualitative difference in terms of how this all plays out in cultural discourse. And Steve H's point also has merit. Yes, it's true that the last incident like this involved a woman of colour but previous incidents involved white women. And yes, it's also true that several "ultra-masculine" female runners of colour (say, Maria Mutola or Pamela Jelimo or Kerron Stewart) have not been challenged or pathologized the way Semenya has. The IAAF ceased mandatory gender-verification testing even before the IOC, but they still carry it out when someone complains. But we don't know the exact circumstances behind the complaints and whether there was racial motivation. (cont'd)

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