Proof – not that it should be needed – that some cis people are so fixated on upholding the gender binary that they will mercilessly attack anyone they believe contravenes their blinkered, prejudiced and untenable worldview.
The world of athletics was hit by controversy tonight after a female South African athlete who won the 800m final at the world championships was asked to take a gender verification test to prove she is a woman.
Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old who had never competed outside of Africa, before this week aroused suspicions when she posted the fastest 800m time in the world this year, winning gold at the African junior championships.
Notice the reversal of the usual legal precept of “innocent until proven guilty” – the burden is on her to prove her “innocence”, and not on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to prove her “guilt”. It’s hard not to think that the IAAF is using these tests as a tool to police gender boundaries, even though Ms Semenya has the full support of her team manager:
Molatelo Malehopo, the general manager of Athletics South Africa, reacted angrily to the rumours. “She is a female,” said Malehopo. “We are completely sure about that and we wouldn’t have entered her into the female competition if we had any doubts. We have not been absent-minded, we are very sure of her gender.”
So what exactly has Ms Semanya done wrong that justifies this deeply offensive intrusion, apart from being a hugely successful competitor, of course. Funny, I always thought the point of sports was, well, competing. But surely posting the fastest 800m time in the world isn’t any reason to have “aroused suspicions” in the IAAF?
Semanya, from Polokwane, Limpopo province, possesses an unusually developed muscular frame and a deep voice and has clocked times which belie her youth […]
Muscular? A fast runner? She’s an athlete, for fuck’s sake. Deep voice? Youth? Oh please. Would you like some misogyny and sexism with that ageism, Miss? Seriously, if these are the grounds for “suspicion”, then the IAAF is run by bigger, more prejudiced fools than I’d have ever imagined. I begin to wonder if the IAAF members need their grasp of reality testing.
It’s interesting how Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, contradicts himself within the space of two sentences:
This is a medical condition. It is nothing that she has done.
How does he know it’s a medical condition when, as far as we know, the tests haven’t even been completed yet? And if it’s nothing that Ms Semenya has done, then why insist on these ludicrous tests, with all the attendant humiliation that’s being heaped upon her?
I’m also interested to know what exactly is involved in this gender verification test.
A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, have started the testing procedure but it is uncertain when the results will be known.
The logic defeats me. We have what cis people usually see as a very simple binary distinction, invariably based on a person’s genital configuration. The reference to gynaecological testing not only suggests that the IAAF see it that way too, but also implies that they think she probably is female (otherwise, why not also have a urologist present?)
And the inclusion of the rest of the circus – psychologists? really? – would not be out of place in the medical inquisition that we know as transitioning. And there’s the rub. Because this whole situation bears a striking resemblance to this transphobic trope that Queen Emily deconstructed so eloquently over at Questioning Transphobia.
One final thought, as the bigots at the IAAF pursue their demonstration of support for the assertion that “biology is destiny”: I wonder what the IAAF will do if these test results show that Ms Semanya has one of the many variations that may place her under the catch-all term of intersex?
ETA: Thanks to Liesl Björn Theron, Director of Gender DynamiX, for forwarding this media statement made jointly by Gender DynamiX and the Saartjie Baartman Centre:
This week South African media, in particular radio DJ’s and print media have been having a shameless orgy with the gender dispute of our gold medalist heroin competing in Berlin.
Last year we lost a South African sport star to a hate crime because she transgressed gender boundaries. Banyana soccer star Eudy Simelane was murdered in a township because she challenged expected gender stereotypes.
Is our media putting a South African hero’s life in danger on her return, gold medal in hand?
Instead of being proud of our champion the South African media and public is on a witch-hunt trying to define Semenya’s sex. DJ’s on radio are dissecting Semenya’s person to a point of reducing her accomplishments to her genitals.
Says Gender DynamiX Director: “In our work we are reminded of how (wo)men’s bodies are so easily ridiculed and made into a spectacle because of gender notions”. Gender DynamiX focuses its work in the field of transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming people.
Civil society organisations, are fighting battles against homophobia and transphobia in South Africa. With their work the killing of black lesbians in acts called “curative rape” has come to light. Gender DynamiX maintains that these hate crimes are not only rooted in sexual orientation but also in gender identity.
Ilse Ahrends, Partnership coordinator at the Saartjie Baartman Centre in Cape Town asks: “Alas where was the media when National Banyana-Banyana soccer player, Eudy Simelane was murdered because of her sexual orientation?”
Gender non-conformity does not always equal gay or lesbian. It merely refers to a person physical appearance that does not conform to society’s expectations. In general people are outraged and confused by gender ambiguity.
As in the case of Castor Simenya, when confronted by people who challenge our perceptions of masculinity or femininity, we react with anger and fear. This is the daily reality for many South Africans.
Gender DynamiX board member Simone Heradien says: “We are appalled by public and media mechanisms that spur hate speech of this nature. We should not forget the part of radio in the genocide in Rwanda.”