The story of Caster Semenya is definitely compelling enough for me to fire up my Harpyness writing during my vacation, partly inspired by a reader who urged us to take this on. Semenya is an 18-year-old South African runner, who is now at the center of a media firestorm following allegations that she is actually a he. The basis for these allegations? Apparently it’s nothing more than the fact that she doesn’t appear “feminine.”
Semenya “has grappled with the consequences of looking boyish all her life,” perhaps only because her body and face strike others as falling outside conventional notions of femininity. Several of Semenya’s rivals have not hesitated to jump to conclusions: “An Italian rival, Elisa Cusma Piccione, called her a man. Russian runner Mariya Savinova agreed. ‘Just look at her,’ she told journalists in Berlin.” But a spokesman for The International Assn. of Athletic Federations seems to have at least superficial sympathy for Semenya.
[I]t was clear that whatever the results of the gender tests, “clearly it was not her fault.”
“It’s a medical issue. You’re talking about someone’s life. She was born, christened and grew up a woman,” he said in an interview with the BBC. The aim of the tests, he said, was to discover whether anything gave her an unfair advantage.
An unfair advantage. Huh. And stating that it’s a medical issue before any test results have come in is not exactly a ringing endorsement of anyone’s faith that Semenya is a woman.
Almost all sports scandals these days, particularly in the realm of track and field, have to do with doping. This is a far more difficult landscape to navigate. To begin with, any testing will take months, during which time Semenya’s accomplishments will remain tainted in the eyes of many people. Second of all, it begs the question of whether Semenya can be penalized if her sex is not found to be feminine by whatever scientific standards exist when she has seemingly been regarded as female by her family and herself for her entire life. It also highlights the dangers of conflating sex with gender. If Semenya is completely biologically female, then why is it acceptable for her sex to be suspect merely because she may not fit within a narrowly constructed box of feminine gender? And then there is the complicated matter of what to do if she is found to be intersex. Is she then barred from competing in any events, either male or female?
Semenya’s continued dominance (she won her most recent match on Wednesday in a performance that was called “a performance so dominant it verged on mockery”) has only intensified the scrutiny on the eighteen-year-old, and I find it doubtful that she will escape the wrath of her rivals — or conspiracy theorists — even if the gender testing proves her to be biologically female. There is a terrific rundown on exactly what constitutes the testing Semenya will be subjected to here. As for issues of race, several observers have questioned just how much of this controversy is being fueled by Eurocentric standards of beauty and womanhood, with one organization stating that: “It feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty. It is this culture which has forced many African women to starve themselves with the objective of reaching the model ramps of Paris and Milan to become the face of this or that product or magazine.”
The IAAF has no hesitation about speaking openly about what must be an extremely personal matter for Semenya, yet then takes over by refusing to allow her to answer questions, with both actions smacking of paternalism. And I question why the testing is necessary if it’s based solely on superficial allegations and not on any substantive proof, let alone why all of this is being made so public. If Semenya has lived her entire life as female with no evidence to the contrary, what right does anyone have to take that identity away from her based on the results of a scientific inquiry that she did not request? The multiple factors at play here won’t go away regardless of the results of the testing. I worry this will set a dangerous precedent for any female athlete who strikes certain observers as being too “masculine.” Conventional notions of gender do not always go hand in hand with biology, and Semenya’s case will hopefully serve as an instructive jumping-off point for those who believe that a “manly” woman cannot truly be a woman.