This past week has seen South African athlete Caster Semenya hit the headlines, in part because of her incredible talent but also because of questions surrounding her sex and gender raised at the IAAF World Championship Games currently held in Berlin. I have had discussions about this issue with my good friends on Facebook and these are my thoughts on the matter. Firstly, this case teaches us that we've also got to interrogate ourselves as people and ask what do we mean by the word man or woman; there is no 'standard', a strict division between the two, but they are fluid, continuous terms who biological and sociological meanings are more similar than it is different. The socially constructed lines we have carved up have always been in contestation and in this instance again they are again challenged.
While the IAAF claims that they are going to test her, I find our quest for absoluteness and exactness in science very questionable. If science decrees she is sexed as a man or a woman; do we accept it because science says so? Is our truth value determined by science alone? What about her lived experience; gender in itself is a sociologically constructed meaning which can contradict the biological definition as in the case of transgendered people. Judith Butler in her conception of gender performance theory argues that gender is performed; it is "a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts." Rightly so, gender is not a fixed but fluid identity that undoes the patriarchal conception of a male/female binary. Gender should be seen as a variable; but moreso as performatively constituted as it depends on how one performs their gender rather than ascribing to socially fixed ideas. Gender placed within the gender-sex continuum identity is about biology as much as it is about one's lived experience and Caster Semenya was born female and has lived as such. If because of a chromosomal imbalance, Semenya 'fails' their testing will the "scientific experts" be the ones to dry her tears and deal with the psychological trauma of declaring her more genetically male than female?
Eva Klobukowska of Poland was eliminated from the 1966 European Games in Budapest because she had one too many male chromosomes with a rare makeup of XXY but she went on to have children! (Pity I couldn't find any images.) Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, was stripped of her medals when it turned out she wasn’t genetically female because of a rare condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Patino 'failed' a DNA test before the 1985 World Championships in Kobe, Japan and was asked by Spanish officials to fake an injury to bow out of competition. She refused, competed, and won gold in the 60m hurdles. After her test results came back, she was stripped of her medals, but after a long battle she proved her faulty receptors actually made her resistant to the additional testosterone in her body and thus did not give her a competitive advantage. She was allowed to represent Spain and went on to have a successful career. Santhi Soundararajan is the Indian athlete who 'failed' a gender test in 2006 after the Asian Games, attempted suicide and although she survived and her story has a happy ending; she was shattered when she 'failed' and her silver medal was taken away. Caster is 18, young and has the world to conquer and because of a chromosomal imbalance she like these other women is forced to prove and defend her femininity.
For argumentsake I could say that Michael Phelps because of his low blood lactate level which allows him to recover faster than other competitors, has an "unfair biological advantage beyond the reach of others" but there are no quibbles there. Or the argument against the sprinter Oscar Pistorius of SA who had a prosthetic leg and it was claimed this was an unfair body enhancement. *???* Yes, the mind boggles at that one. And it does so on this one too. Gender testing in itself is a sexist practice; how do we know there are some men who are more female than male in their genetic makeup and so they do better at archery or badminton as these are sports women are naturally better at than men. The IOC ruled in 2000 that gender testing was to be abandoned, and in 2004 ruled transgendered people could partake in the Olympics. JL Simpson writing in the Journal of American Medical Association (2000) states,
"gender verification tests are difficult, expensive, and potentially inaccurate. Furthermore, these tests fail to exclude all potential impostors (eg, some 46,XX males), are discriminatory against women with disorders of sexual development, and may have shattering consequences for athletes who 'fail' a test."
Given these developments; why is the IAAF still holding onto an outmoded, invasive rule? And if it's apt to question chromosomal imbalance as unfair advantage, its also important that we question how international sport can ever be fair when economic and political advantage athletes from richer countries have over those from poorer and/or politically unstable countries who do not have access to training facilities as good as other competitors.
The Head of the ASA, Leonard Chuene has described this as "racism of the highest order". When an 18 year old South African girl's gender is questioned in front of the whole world, it certainly stirs up feelings and I myself in emotion had shouted 'racism, racism'; but rescinded once I read up on what other athletes had been through. In a no-holds barred criticism, Chuene lashed out,
"who are these White people to question the makeup of an African girl"
That was classic! Despite that I now disagree with him; this was a very bold statement that got people, talking about Caster, applauding Chuene and jeering the IAAF. And, while I as a private individual had the freedom to rant on Facebook on a shaky historic burden of proof, Chuene is a public figure who as the country's sports ambassador bears a much heavier, more specific burden of proof. In hindsight I do wonder what implications that statment might have for South Africa's image considering next year they host the World Cup. Was he playing the race card? Maybe, but I'm still laughing at his outburst.... Nonetheless, what I am in full support of is this remark by Chuene,
"If gender tests have to take place, they should have been done quietly. It is a taboo subject. How can a girl live with this stigma? By going public on the tests, the IAAF has let down this young child, and I will fight tooth and nail to protect her."
The insensitive and unethical manner in which the IAAF has handled this issue is unacceptable and the ASA is in the process of filing a complaint of violation of personal rights to the UN. Regardless of the previous attempts they'd done to handle this matter in confidence, to publicly announce their intent of further investigation 4 hours before her race is morally unjust and they ought to apologise to Semenya and her family for the damage caused.
Coming back to the issue of race/racism; I think the racial component makes things even more complicated and it can be a dangerous invocation if the parameters are not set out right. In my view, taking into account the history of gender testing in sport as outlined above; a framing for race rather than racism as a critical standpoint can be made, in the wider historical context of the Black gendered body in sport. It is not a pretty history and Black women have struggled against racism, sexism, oppressive tradition in their quest for sporting glory. The stories of these pioneers tell this all too well: Alice Coachman the first African American to win Olympic Gold, Berlin 1948, Althea Gibson of the US, the first Black woman to win Wimbeldon Singles, 1957, Helen Kimaiyo of Kenya who first competed in the Olympics in 1984, LA at just age 15 (!) and Derarte Tulu of Ethiopia the first Black African, but not the first African, to win Olympic Gold (see pic). Salut!
When I saw Caster Semenya I thought of the Williams sisters and champion runners, Maria Mutola of Mozambique, Amy Mbacke Thiam of Senegal and Samukeliso Moyo of Zimbabwe who have had their gender questioned on numerous ocassions; if not by official bodies then by fellow athletes or inquisitive members of the public who couldn't accept someone different to their narrow conceptions of normative female beauty and physique. For charges of racism to be levelled against the IAAF would be treading into murky waters. One would have to look at its handling of other similar cases in the past post-1966, after the Press Sisters' case, as an appropriate temporal comparative. It would also have to be asked whether the IAAF has acted on rumours/complaints about White/Asian/South American/Arab athletes from Black athletes. So far, I've found no solid evidence pointing to that, the only thing is that Caster Semenya is the first Black female athlete to my knowledge, to have her sexed identity questioned in this particular manner.
What is unquestionably racist and heartless though is the way some bloggers have described her as animalistic or like she were some half-evolved person. Trashy tabloids like The Sun have have been sniggering at this with tasteless headlines. Places like Paddy bookmakers in the UK are taking bets on the outcome of her test and I find this despicable and morally reprehensible. While these organisations are profitting from cheap headlines and foolish betters; and bloggers are taking stabs at Caster; they forget that she is a person. A human being with feelings and deserving of dignity that the faces behind these screens might one day demand when they have become the subject of inquiry. Same goes for the IAAF and its inappropriate handling of the matter. Further to this, were science to decree that she is biologically more male than female, what would be gained? A returned medal? So what? Personally, I hope she will be able compete in 2012 come the London Olympics. And if she does I hope she runs her heart out and smashes those records to claim medals upon medals; she may not be feminine by narrow normative standards but she was born a woman and a gifted and talented one at that!
Thatha Sisi, thatha! The world is yours!