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It’s Enough To Make You Change Gender

September 11, 2009, 9:03 pm

At the U.S. Open last week, a friend of mine and I were discussing how unbelievably homophobic professional sports are — more so than the United States military, where it is against military regulations to say you are homosexual, but people often do anyway — usually as they are preparing to leave the service and/or file a lawsuit. Although the National Tennis Center is named after a lesbian, and Martina Navratilova broke a barrier by first coming out and then competing as an openly gay woman, can you name more than one or two queer tennis players? Can you name any other active, queer professional athletes? Even though there must be hundreds of them?

You may also recall that there were grumblings about Navratilova not being a “real” woman, once she stopped eating fried foods and started lifting weights. Similarly, 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 as to her gender.

For those who have been following the news about South African runner Caster Semenya, it may be dispiriting to see how far we have not come as a society. Today, the Associated Press reports, Australian newspaper has scooped gender tests on Semenya that are not to be officially concluded or released until November, claiming that she has internal testicles and no ovaries, and is therefore not a woman.

Defenders of Semenya argue that her privacy has ben invaded; several sympathetic South Africans are quoted in this story that they fear she might kill herself. With friends like this, who needs the Australian press, I ask you? Meanwhile, 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 “how about 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?”

Tell that to the IOC, why don’t you?

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 “girlie” way to begin with she might have been less vulnerable to this kind of charge. She’s certainly not the fastest woman we’ve ever seen (although many of those were hyped up on synthetic hormones) and frankly, many female track and field athletes, tennis players and gymnasts, famous for their lack of breasts and ropy, cut muscles, would look like guys too — or at least little boys — if you cut their hair right. As proof of how easy this is, Caster’s handlers have changed coaches and presumably fired their old PR people. The new bunch did femmy makeover for the cover of You magazine, which gushes, “Wow, Look At Caster Now!”

And yet, forcing Caster to do the diva turn — first this way, then that — does not address the heart of the issue, which is how much trouble people who are not gender normative have in sports. But for men, who are privileged as athletes, the problem is social. For women, the problem is social and medical, since hermaphorditic, third gender, transgender, and those people who present as defective men, are thrown into the category of “woman,” usually at birth, whether they want to be or not.

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