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In Search Of The History That Hasn’t Happened: Caster Semenya, Gender Barriers And The Right To Compete

September 20, 2009, 2:12 pm

Several weeks ago, while watching some early round matches at the U.S. Open, a friend of mine and I were discussing how unbelievably homophobic the world of sports still is. Of course, you might point out that we were having this conversation at the National Tennis Center, which is named after a lesbian. Billie Jean King first fought sexism in the sport; was then forced out of the closet; and then, having lost all her sponsorships, competed as an out lesbian. Subsequently, Martina Navratilova (pictured at left in all her glorious butchness) came out, lost her sponsorships, competed as an out lesbian and — also like King– became a serious player in the political and legal struggle for civil equality.

But friends, this boundary in tennis was broken thirty years ago. Where is the history of queer athletes moving into the mainstream that should have followed? Can you name more than one or two openly queer tennis players who are active today? Are any of them men? Can you name any other active, queer professional athletes, men or women? Even though there must be hundreds — thousands — of them?

The conversation with my friend easily slipped over into a related subject: transphobia in sports, why it affects women exclusively, and the ongoing investigation of the outstanding South African runner Caster Semenya. For those of you who are not sports fans, Semenya’s gender identity as a woman has been challenged by some of her competitors, prompting an official scientific inquiry by the governing body in international track and field as to her “real” gender. I say “a related conversation” because, despite the critical alliances between gay and lesbian people and people who identify as transgendered, it’s not the same conversation and sometimes it is a very different one. Perhaps the most prominent thing shared among those people described by the initials G,L,B and T is that we do not enjoy full constitutional rights. Hence, we are often unable to fully merge our private and our public selves without becoming the objects of bigotry and violence, and our access to status and success is often limited by our inability to present ourselves as simultaneously legally, physically and socially “normal.”

The categories described by the initials often overlap as well (as categories tend to do because they are all intellectual constructions to begin with), which is another important reason for such alliances: people shift from one initial to another, or inhabit several of them simultaneously. In a world dominated by monogamy, bisexual people in the end tend to choose one partner and that choice is a socially defining one: regardless of the gender identity of that person, they have to work pretty hard to remind people that they belong in the B category. Similarly, many female to male transsexuals begin their adult sexual lives as lesbians, become men while still desiring women sexually, and then become socially “straight” – often while still thinking of themselves as queer. Male to female transsexuals who continue to be attracted to women become lesbians, and some FTM’s find themselves powerfully drawn to sex with men for the first time in their lives. Some transpeople proudly identify as ungendered, as transgendered, or as transsexual. Others go stealth which, for the uninitiated, means living in the gender that you feel is rightly yours and leaving the gender assigned at birth behind. Hence, some transpeople are freed to no longer be perceived as queer at all.

So let’s come back to the trouble gender creates for women athletes, and is currently causing for Caster Semenya (pictured at right) in particular. You may recall that, having come out as a lesbian in 1981, Navratilova intensified her training and transformed her body to achieve a level of athleticism previously unseen in the girly-girl world of women’s tennis. As she swept up title after title, there were increasingly nasty public remarks about Navratilova not being a “real” woman; some said she should only be permitted to compete against men. That Navratilova came from the Soviet bloc, where the use of hormones and other forms of doping in national athletic development programs had become state policy, undoubtedly fueled a prejudice that was entirely American: Navratilova was simply not feminine enough in her physical or her social self.

It was probably no coincidence that Navratilova’s transformation occurred just subsequent to Renee Richards’ successful battle against the USTA for the right to compete against women after having undergone sex reassignment. What is also important, in my view, is that while homophobia affects everybody, it is the female body that is the object of scientific scrutiny in sports. Demands for chromosomal testing for women who looked too powerful to be women have been pervasive since it was possible to do chromosomal tests. As the documentary movie about the history of women’s rowing, A Hero For Daisy (Mary Mazzio, 2000) underlines, women who raise the level of female competition are always perceived as being improperly gendered. Chris Ernst, a short, wiry, muscular Olympic rower who won gold in the women’s double sculls at the 1986 world rowing championships, was repeatedly challenged throughout her rowing career as to her “real” gender.

According to this article published in 2000 by Myron Genel, an endocrinologist and Professor of Pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine, there is a history to this form of scrutiny that begins with women’s difficulty in gaining access to national and international athletic competition in the first place. As the resistance of national and international athletic organizations was eroded by the determination of women to compete at high levels, and the popularity of high profile women like Babe Didrickson Zaharias, “increasing attention was devoted to the concept of a ‘level playing field.’” As Genel writes,

In a number of instances, questions were raised regarding the “femininity” of highly successful female competitors, in particular during the Cold War era of competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. These rumors were abetted by anecdotal reports of recognized athletes who were found to have varying degrees of intersexuality. In 1 case, a Polish sprinter with an apparent chromosomal mosaicism was stripped of her medals. Three track and field champions who competed as women before World War II subsequently underwent reconstructive surgery and sex reassignment. These cases led to efforts to ensure that women competing at international events were in fact women, initially with rather crude and demeaning efforts at physical examination. In 2 instances, women athletes were required to parade nude before a panel of femal
e physicians, and at another event women athletes were required to undergo direct gynecologic examination.

By 1968, an unreliable form of chromosomal testing was added to physical examinations, which over the next decade became routine at the Olympic level for men and women. Chromosomal testing has become more sophisticated since then, but no less controversial, in part because the more we learn about the science of gender the less we can say with confidence about gender as a social category. Put simply, our binary gender system cannot account for the many chromosomal combinations that occur in real bodies or the hormonal variations that suppress or enhance gendered physical characteristics. Because of this, in 1999, at the urging of the Athlete’s Commission, the IOC suspended routine testing for the Sydney summer games, replacing it with a policy pioneered by by the governing body of international track and field that “permits intervention and evaluation of individual athletes by appropriate medical personnel if there is any question regarding gender identity.” But as Genel points out, the only effect of chromosomal testing has been to bar women who exceed the female performance norm from potentially competing against women who are at the norm or fall short of it. People who are socially male and are weaker are allowed to simply lose, whereas people who are socially female face suspicion that they might not be women after all.

For those who have been following the news about Caster Semenya, it may be dispiriting to see how far athletics has not come in being able to imagine that the phrase “female athlete” is not, in some way, a contradiction in terms. But it is even more dispiriting to read the impoverished nature of the public discussion, which posits Semenya and her supporters’ claim that she is a “real woman” against the possibility that she is just a “freak.” Last week, the Associated Press reported that an Australian newspaper had scooped the gender tests on Semenya (which include an MRI) that are not to be officially completed or released until November, prompting the new rumor that she has internal testicles and no ovaries, and is therefore not “a woman.” Meanwhile, the Semenya camp has arranged for a cover shot of her dolled up as a girly-girl which — for any of us who were forced into clothes that made us feel wrong, wrong, wrong — is simply horrifying. Yes, she makes a very pretty fixer-upper as a “girl.” But she is also very handsome the way she chose to be in the first place, as a no-nonsense, athletic, butch woman.

Defenders of Semenya argue that her privacy has been invaded, which is also so not to the point: gender is social, and a public matter, if it is anything. If gender were private, then we could all change our official documents at random and people with intersexed children wouldn’t be told to “choose” as pediatric surgeons were standing by to sculpt a newborn’s genitals into something that other people will be comfortable with. Indeed, the idea that not being gendered “normally” is a devastating public tragedy is clear from the response of those friendly to Semenya. Several supposedly sympathetic South African supporters have been quoted to the effect that the revelation of her “true” gender would not only be career-ending it would be life-ending: they have voiced fears that she might kill herself.

With friends like this, who needs the Australian press, I ask you? My old friend Tavia Nyong’o, over at Bully Bloggers has written a beautifully intelligent piece that asks whether, instead of obsessing over the naturalness of Semenya’s gender, we might imagine “turning the question around and denaturalizing the world of gender segregated, performance-obsessed, commercially-driven sports, a world that can neither seem to do with or without excessive bodies like Semenya’s and their virtuosic performances?”

It is a very tangled web indeed, which grows all the more tangled if you consider –as Nyong’o does — that had Semenya chosen to present herself in a “girly” way to begin with she might have been less vulnerable. We can’t know that, of course, but there is a certain washroom logic to it (I am referring to the fact that any of us who confuse others as to our gender know that bathrooms are ground zero for the gender police.) Semenya is fast, but she certainly is not the fastest woman we’ve ever seen (although many of the fastest women later turn out to be hyped up on synthetic hormones), and she is twelve seconds slower than the fastest men. But no matter: it is appearances that count. And these appearances are carefully scripted for women: pony tails, pastels and makeup can accomplish a lot, as any drag queen could tell you. In fact, many female track and field athletes, tennis players, figure skaters and gymnasts, famous for their lack of breasts and ropy, cut muscles, would look like guys too — or at least little boys — if you gave them the right haircut and put them in a tee shirt and jeans. As proof of how easy it is to become a “normal woman,” Caster’s handlers in South Africa have done just that. You have probably seen the femmy makeover pictured on the right which gushes, “Wow, Look At Caster Now!” Because if she’s on the cover of a women’s magazine, dolled up like a woman, she must be a woman. Right? Can’t fake that!

Uh huh. I am looking at Caster now, and whether she chose that makeover or not, it fills me with dread and sorrow. Because, short of a world where it is acknowledged that we have a right to choose our own gender, it will nearly always be women who are marginalized by these defining practices and, as many black South Africans rightly believe, people like Semenya who come from populations that are already stigmatized in some ways by their racial or colonial histories. A truly just society would simply allow people to compete according to ability, would not require from them as much as we do, and it would not ask them to perform anything as athletes but feats of speed, strength and skill.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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