Friday, August 21, 2009

Run Like a Girl

I'm hesitant to talk about South African runner (and now gold medal winner) Caster Semenya at all because she has already had so many people talk about her without her consent, but I have all of 10 readers anyway, and there is something that I keep coming back to.

The idea that we "can tell" what gender someone is by looking at them is flawed on many fronts. What we call "gender" in these discussions is really sex, what kind of reproductive organs one has, and even though there are multiple medically defined sexes, as a society we are only comfortable with two.

The characteristics that we define as attached to the male gender - narrow hips and broad shoulders - are the same traits that we define as beautiful when it comes to the ultimate in defined femininity: fashion models.

The difference here is that someone happens to have narrow hips, broad shoulders and very developed muscles. The muscles that make it necessary for her to do what brought her to the international stage to begin with - to run fast. We can prop you up as the ideal so long as you have no muscle tone. So long as you are not powerful.

If however, you have narrow hips, broad shoulders, rockin' abs and shoulder muscles, are tall, and you win, then we do not trust who you say you are:
"It would seem it is acceptable for masculine-looking women to compete as long as they lose," the paper said. "When they win they must have a 'gender test'."
This is all to say, that even if the invasive tests that she is enduring declare that she does not fit into our definition of "female," the International Association of Athletics Federations will not consider her win the product of cheating.

So, all that may come of this is a an 18-year old woman is being publicly humiliated for doing what she does well. She has been robbed of the excitement and joy she should have felt from winning the Gold Medal at the World Championships:
She said she did not want to go on the podium, but I told her she must. She is not rejoicing. She [didn't] want the medal. She told me: 'No one ever said I was not a girl, but here [in Berlin] I am not. I am not a boy. Why did you bring me here? You should have left me in my village at home'.
The only thing I can hope is that the experts that have been called to explain the many different ways that people can exist without falling into the two "norms" will broaden our understanding of our own limitations to our understanding and acceptance of people.

I also hope that Caster Semenya continues to run and win and leave everyone in the dust.


  1. I read this article and had the same reaction. Especially the part where they describe the myriad of ways they go about determining sex. How humiliating...

  2. Gmail decided to scroll the page for some reason so I accidentally rejected this comment from Ron Till Dawn:

    In my Women's Studies class, we coincidentally were discussing gender identity this week. I immediately thought of this issue when I read of it. Reading that quote of her's broke my heart. Even if it turns out that she's unknowingly intersexed, I think they should let her keep the medal... even though that won't take away the pain they've already caused her... or the way society thinks about gender.

  3. I hadn't heard about this. And while I'm in agreement with everything said here I'm also reminded that I am narrow-minded about this, too. It's reminiscent of what it must have been like to have been born as an albino a hundred years ago, at a time when we were beyond witches, but nowhere close to being beyond prejudice. I'm sorry for the humiliation she is suffering but it is only humiliation if no one (like Stephanie) stands up and says, "this isn't right. We're better than this."

    Thanks, Steph. Solid writing.



be nice.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin