Saturday, September 19, 2009

Personal Confusion with Caster Semenya

What if this were your child, champion South African runner Caster Semenya? News reports say she's been put on suicide watch since her gender has been debated in the public, her blood's been drawn and studied in a lab, her genitalia have been examined and photographed in private as part of gender testing, and some people have labeled her with the offensive word "hermaphrodite." Earlier this month she withdrew from a race because of the speculation about her gender. Should we lay blame in how horribly her case was handled? If so, where?
Caster Semenya, the South African runner at the centre of a gender dispute, has been placed on suicide watch, according to a report in the Star newspaper in South Africa.

The report, published last week, said Semenya is being cared for "round the clock" by psychologists after unconfirmed reports that the 18-year-old is a hermaphrodite.

"She is like a raped person. She is afraid of herself and does not want anyone near her," Butana Komphela, chairman of South Africa's sports committee, told the paper.

"If she commits suicide, it will be on all our heads. The best we can do is protect her and look out for her during this trying time."

South African athletics officials said Semenya is receiving trauma counselling at the University of Pretoria. (CBC sports, Canada)
When I first heard about the Caster Semenya story in August, folks questioning her gender and charges that it was racism, I went in search for video of the South African track star. This is what I found on YouTube.

I know my sisters at BlogHer have been debating this, whether it's homophobia, sexism, or racism and also use of the insulting word "hermaphrodite" with questioning gender, and I'm sure these discussions are valuable and valid, but for me, a black woman who considers herself a womanist/feminist, when I took a look at Caster, I thought, "Is this a male or a female?" There's nothing sexist, racist, or homophobic about that question. Humans are classified by gender. Whether we should be is another debate completely.

I concluded privately, without confirming test results, that this is a child who was probably born with testicles on the inside. I figured that she was more like a boy but was raised as a girl because on the outside her genitalia look female. It happens sometimes, and as an ordinary human, I frequently make judgments based on what my eyes alone tell me. If I didn't, I couldn't get through life. Hmm, looks looks like a red light, but is it? Not too wise to stop and question everything you see along the way.

But if I were an official involved with rules of track and field competition based on gender, I'd have to do more than believe my eyes only when it comes to evaluating a runner whose appearance, demeanor, and voice seemed more like a male than a female. I'd require a test. I hope, however, that if I were a sports competition official, that I'd show the athlete involved and her family more compassion than South African sports officials have shown Caster Semenya. News sources say these people hid information from Semenya regarding questions about her gender and their decision to test her, that rather than have the guts to sit down and talk with her and her parents face to face, they let the challenges blow up in the press. (Photo from Daily Mail story)

Scientists say Senenya's condition is the result of a birth defect. You can look this up online. I'm sure there are people with the condition who could reasonably argue that perhaps it's not a birth defect, that it's just one more state of human existence, and in this politically correct world, I'm sure they'd gain support. How can we argue with states of being human?

On matters of race it must be said that Semenya's condition is not something that only happens to Africans or people recently of African descent. In fact, the more well-known cases that have been publicized have involved people of European descent. Is it more common in one group than another? I don't know. That's what scientific researchers are for, telling us what's common and uncommon in certain groups.

Racism, homophobia, and sexism chatter aside, sometimes I think we get out of hand with asking people to disbelieve their own eyes. If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, your eyes tell you it's a duck. If you put the duck in a competition with geese and insist what looks like a duck is in fact a goose, I think to be fair to the geese and the ducks, somebody needs to test the competitor that looks like the duck. That's just me with my momentarily simple, overtaxed mind.

Now all the other stuff that's gone on in the Semenya case, the leaked story calling Semenya a "hermaphrodite" (correct word is intersexed), the lying South African official regarding test agreements, and pushing Semeya to pretty up for a magazine shoot were nasty stupid human tricks. But looking at and listening to Caster Semenya and wondering is she male or female--reasonably human question, not racist. What I mean is, I'm pretty sure some of the people who wondered about her gender are racist people who insult black women in general, perhaps Michelle Obama in particular, but that doesn't mean Caster Semenya's appearance--shape of her face, lack of a waistline, narrow hips, non-effeminate mannerisms, and deep voice--don't beg this question: girl or boy?

Her condition is something her parents may not have noticed until she reached puberty, if they noticed at all. Once you've accepted that your child is one gender, it's hard to convince yourself that you and the doctors may have been wrong--that she many be more male than female or, in the case of the intersexed child raised as a boy, vice versa. You, as an ordinary parent, may have never considered that perhaps some people have to choose gender or may choose to present themselves as genderless. Being a parent more likely renders you incapable of absolute objectivity about your own child when it comes to addressing preconceived notions.

Parents dream of having a specific bundle of joy and some can't handle the child who doesn't fit the fantasy image. Think about the parents out there right this moment berating a daughter for being fat. They wanted Halle Berry or Taylor Swift and nobody in their family, they say, has ever been fat. Furthermore, as in the case of obesity sometimes, I imagine in certain kinds of cultures, having a child that does not fit into a neat little box holding societal expectations may knock parents down notches on the social ladder.

When it comes to the intersexed, this isn't necessarily a statement about African cultures. There are towns in America, I'm sure, where having an intersex child would make your life difficult and the child's life a living hell. Remember the two children earlier this year who killed themselves after being bullied with the word "gay" based on appearance and personality. That happened right here in the U.S.A. They seemed different to their peers and their peers persecuted them for it.

I don't know much about Semenya's parents. Early in the story last month, I think her father was quoted insisting that Caster is a girl, his cherished daughter. I hope she remains cherished, that they are the kind of parents who will love her no matter what, and while this public examination of their child must be a difficult period for them, I hope they have the spiritual strength to love Caster more fiercely because of it.

But what about the rest of us? "An intersex organism may have biological characteristics of both the male and female sexes," per Wikipedia. An intersex human in the news causes us to rethink views of gender, reevaluate what does it mean to be male or female. What if it were your child being scrutinized?

I'll leave the deep analysis of what is homophobic, sexist, or racist on this topic to passionate advocates who especially address gender and GLBT community issues, and while the story may have elements of racist ideology worthy of examination, I'll pass this time. Who has the energy to examine every neuron of the racist mind?

My only real comment is that I feel sorry for Caster Semenya, not because she appears to be an intersexed human but because her physical nature--whether she is male or female--was discussed worldwide in the press before she had a chance to explore her own feelings and determine who she is for herself, because she is a young one who's been thrust into an arena of wolves while the ignorant mob gawks in the stands.

I fault South African sports administrators for Semenya being shoved into the burning glare of the public spotlight. They made all the wrong moves at Semenya's expense.


See related AP story, "Wrong turns worsened Semenya's ordeal," that examines how officials of the International Association of Athletics Federations and others handled the Semenya case.

What? A more correct term than intersex="disorders of sexual development."

Chicago Now: Support for Caster Semenya

What about that stupid Jamie Lee Curtis rumor?

1992 Time magazine article, "Genetic Tests (for gender) Under Fire."

Book recommendation: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. "The narrator and protagonist, Calliope Stephanides (later called "Cal"), an intersexed person of Greek descent, has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency."

Cross-posted at

1 comment:

A.Marie said...

Such an extremely well written, well-thought-out post. I enjoyed reading it, and appreciate your views. I really feel for this young person and wish her all the best. It would be hard enough to have her condition, and then to be in such a glaring spotlight, well, I wouldn't want it to happen to my children.

I'm not sure if I would say it is racial discrimination, because it appears to be more of a gender discrimination; she is a woman but she runs with the speed and strength of a man. Women can also have speed and strength, but what makes this more intriguing is the fact that she is both: female and male. And that makes people say, "well, she can't possibly run that fast; she certainly must be male." Would she be running this fast if she wasn't intersexed?? I don't know the answer to this one; all I know is that she certainly can run. The way this was handled was awful, and I feel terrible that it has affected her so deeply.