In case you haven’t heard, there has been some serious bullshit going on about Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old world champion runner from South Africa, whose privacy is being invaded beyond belief in a controversy over whether the runner has too many male characteristics to compete as a woman. On Tuesday, Semenya won the 800-meters race at the track and field world championships, just hours after it was determined by track officials that she would need to undergo sex testing to determine her further eligibility to compete as a woman. Many people globally are rightfully angered about the public invasion of the young woman’s privacy.
Lamine Diack, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, (the organization who ordered the investigation) has admitted that the confidentiality of the investigation was breached, called this “regrettable,” and asked for an inquiry. However, these words are little comfort to those who are outraged by the implicit sexism, heteronormativity and racism in the investigation. Controversy and finger-pointing has also arisen over who was the one to raise the question about Semenya’s sex to the I.A.A.F. It has also been noted that white South Africans seem to be conspicuously absent as Semenya’s supporters.
Leonard Chuene, President of Athletics South Africa, said to The New York Times: “We are not going to allow Europeans to define and describe our children…The only scientists I believe in are the parents of this child.”
According to a test three years ago, Semenya’s testosterone levels were in the normal range for women, and she was judged to be definitely female. But regardless of the results, these investigations emphasize how global society continues to denigrate, mock, and intimidate those who do not conform to a rigid binary of gender stereotypes.
The New York Times notes that Semenya has been subjected to harassment about her sex before. “Boys used to tease her all the time…Sometimes she’d have to beat them up,” said Semenya’s great aunt, Martina Mpati. Semenya’s high school principal told South African newspaper “The Star” that at some track meets, the other team would demand proof of her sex identity, but after they returned from the toilets, “she would be cleared and the competition would resume.”
But as if physical exams and taunting weren’t enough, her sex has become an item of global attention and speculation, simply because of the way that she looks and speaks. Semenya should not be subjected to this blatant gender discrimination. But sadly, Semenya is forced to deal with this discrimination on both a private and public level, and she is being further taunted and humiliated globally because this most recent investigation was made public.
Dave Zirin calls out the “twisted, sexist, racist, and heteronormative” history of track and field in this MSNBC video on the subject. Check it out.
Zirin also wrote an excellent piece on the subject in which he points out that:
fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that in the case of black women, “the International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them — the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.'”
But it seems that we have remained relatively stagnant on this issue, and it still seems all too often that the athletic success of women (especially non-white women) causes their sex identity or honesty (or both) to be questioned. The possibility of an endless spectrum of genders, even sexes, seems to be thought of as entirely impossible in a global athletics culture which values only a clear-cut gender binary in which male is the more athletically successful of the two categories. We must resist this urge to define what is acceptable by these stereotypes of what it means to be male or female, masculine or feminine. Perhaps only with the erasure of these stereotypes and this rigid gender/sex binary will we be able to stop the further humiliation and degradation of innocent people like Semenya.