Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Can we all apologize to Semenya?

The International Association of Athletics Federations has agreed that South African runner Caster Semenya can keep her gold medal, the prize money, AND keep the results of her “gender tests” private.

“Whatever scientific tests were conducted legally within the IAAF regulations will be treated as a confidential matter between patient and doctor,” the sports ministry said. “As such there will be no public announcement of what the panel of scientists has found. We urge all South Africans and other people to respect this professional ethical and moral way of doing things.”

Since Semenya’s sex was publicly questioned a variety of media outlets have reported that she is a “hermaphrodite” (intersexed- with male and female reproductive organs). These reports seem to have been leaked from the IAAF itself.

The sports ministry said Thursday it had asked the IAAF to apologize for its role, and had received this response: “It is deeply regrettable that information of a confidential nature entered the public domain.”

The Associated Press: SAfrican ministry says Semenya to keep gold medal.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to apologize to Semenya who has said it’s difficult to be stared at all the time, even though she treats this entire controversy as a “joke.”

But it’s really not funny.

There’s nothing funny about the role of sports in insisting that all bodies- but especially female bodies- be of “certain” sex. Determining sex is messy business. Especially since some bodies are intersex. We’re not sure how many, but biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has estimated that perhaps 3% of all babies are born without being fully male or female.

And there’s nothing funny about the role of media in making a spectacle of yet another African woman’s body as not “fully feminine.” Whether it’s the Venus sisters today or the Hottentot Venus (Saartje Baartman) 150 years ago, white claims to racial superiority often rest on the claim of more gender differentiation. White women are “feminine” (at least if they’re not poor and not lesbians), where as African and African-American women are “too muscular,” “too manly,” “hypersexual,” and more generally not “real” women.

It’s time for everyone to apologize to Semenya. She was born a woman; she was raised as a woman; she identifies as a woman. She should run as a woman.

Unless we want to consider whether we really need sports that insist on a coherent and stable gender? For instance, I just heard about a promising young female athlete who decided to start identifying as male. He was forced to quit his sport. Maybe he shouldn’t have been. Maybe sports could be about bodies of more or less similar size and strength competing against one another, regardless of gender.

And maybe we can all think about what we really want to get out of sports. A rigid and extreme insistence that the line between men and women is clear? Attacks on women who are “too good to be girls”? Or a space to push the human body, regardless of its gender, sexuality, race, chromosomal make up, or even attractiveness- to the limits of human flesh.


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