Video interview by letsrundotcom
Responding to speculation about Semenya’s biological sex, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) are now subjecting her to the ordeal of ‘testing’ by an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an ‘expert on gender’ and a clinical psychologist.
Some things have changed since the first ‘gender tests’ in the 1960s, when female athletes were required to walk naked before judges to ensure their femininity before competing. But the overall assumption that the human population is divided into two binary categories, male and female, remains.
The disgraceful action of the IAAF, and the offensive, ill-informed and downright bizarre reaction of much of the mainstream media illustrates just how precarious ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are as identity categories.
Writers and online commentators alike scrabble for ‘evidence’ of Semenya’s femininity or masculinity. What kind of toys did she play with as a child? What clothes did she wear in her school photographs? Does she date men? Writers appeal to scientists to tell us about XX and XY chromosomes, about Androgen Insensitivity syndrome, and about the percentage of the global population defined as ‘intersex’.
The story has become an hysterical witch-hunt, where headlines such as ‘Is she really a HE?’ (Daily Mail) and ‘Boy, can she run’ (Times) reflect a schoolyard, toilet wall unease with anyone who can’t be shoved in a gendered box. The story has unleashed transphobia across the mainstream press, with Germaine Greer possibly winning the phobic prize for referring to ‘people passing for female’ as a ‘delusion’ and ‘ghastly parody’.
Campaigning groups and commentators in South Africa have hit back at the IAAF and media furore, pointing out the racist stereotypes underlying such assumptions about gender. Sokari on the blog Black Looks raises the important comparison with the imperialist misogynist exhibition of Sara Baartman throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. The pathologisation of black women’s bodies continues in the subjection of Semenya to the ‘science’ of categorisation.
Female athletes have long faced the brunt of social gender stereotyping. It was not so long ago that Martina Navr√°tilov√° was accused by a bitter opponent of having "a chromosome loose somewhere", and even more recently Am√©lie Mauresmo bore the brunt of media speculation about the size of her muscles.
Many women spend a good proportion of their lives being questioned about how well they match up to the ideal feminine archetype - a construction of the most powerful in society that rests on assumptions about gender, class, ‘race’ and sexuality. Every day the boundaries of the categories ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are policed, and those who do not fit face ridicule, discrimination and violence.
Sex and gender are so much more complicated than slotting people into neatly defined categories. People like to rely on classification so that they can make a whole list of related assumptions. The Mail’s Liz Jones sums this up nicely with her patronising test for Semenya: does she know when the recycling goes out? Does she take a list shopping? I am sure that for Liz Jones, and many of the people who enjoy basking in the distinctly eurocentric mars/venus school of thought, such assumptions make the world seem more understandable, more manageable.
But the fact is that pretty much nobody fits the gender mould automatically. While there are a spectrum of biological sex differences, including genital, chromosomal and hormonal, most of what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ is learned and reinforced through social norms. Gender is a performance, which carries grave punishments for those who don’t play by the rules.
Along with groups such as the Young Communist League of South Africa (uFasimba), we should be congratulating Caster Semenya on her phenomenal victory and challenging the bigotry that has sprung up around it.
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