In 2009, when she was 18, South African athlete Caster Semenya won the Women’s Athletic World 800m championships. Because of her superior abilities combined with her gender presentation, Semenya went on to endure very public speculation about her sex, and “gender tests” administered by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). In South Africa, her femaleness was loudly asserted by politicians as part of a nationalist response to the racism at play, and also as an explicit rejection of the proper Africanness of gender non-conformity and, implicitly, homosexuality (while I don’t know how Semenya identifies - there are a number of African options available to her, in addition to the Western rainbow alphabet - she married her long-time girlfriend, Violet Raseboya, in 2015). As scholar Mark Epprecht wrote,
“South African politicians and media… embraced Semenya as part of the South African family, but only to the extent that her femaleness and femininity were publicly confirmed. They vigorously denounced as racist those who questioned her credentials as a woman, as if gender ambiguity was an affront to the very idea of blackness and hence, an insult to all Africans” (Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa. London and New York: Zed, 2013. p.4).
This is a relevant, if tangential, point to make, because the gender bullying I want to write about today is not the province only of the racist West. While the power dynamics and the historical details may be very different, a patriarchal version of modern African identity continues to refuse to accept the gender and sexual variations that are, and always have been, as much a part of African cultures as heteronormativity. It’s also, as I’ve written about elsewhere, a tragedy: it’s the product of colonial Christianity, which imposed Victorian values on the African cultures it denigrated and sought to eliminate.
It’s important to me to say this, although it’s not the focus of today’s post. In addition, I don't want to be arguing for the quality of Semenya's femaleness, or constructing a rejection of gender non-conformity. Semenya is both non-normatively female in her gender presentation and possibly in her biology, and a woman. It's not an either/or.
In 2015, the IAAF tried to ban Semenya from participating in world athletics because of her higher-than-average testosterone levels. At that time, they failed to prove that having higher testosterone is enough of an advantage to warrant banning female athletes with this genetic variation. Yesterday, I heard that they have now produced new regulations, focused on the distances Semenya runs, which require that female athletes with high testosterone levels take medication to lower them, or be banned from competing with other women.
Let’s leave aside the flawed science behind this ridiculous decree. Let’s even, if you can stomach it, leave aside the persistent targeting of a black woman for being too good. Many others are writing about this outrage with skill and clarity. Let’s think, for a moment, about what is at play when a person assigned female at birth, with female anatomy and a female identity (three different, and independent, markers of femaleness), is targeted for discrimination, as not female enough, because of something her female body does. These are not the only claims to female identity, but since we are engaging in the realm of “science” and its underwriting of gender norms, let’s proceed with those terms for now.
While I can’t find any reports that are not produced out of the controversial way she has been treated across the past decade, as she continues to excel, Semenya might be intersex. This does not mean she is not female. It does require us to broaden our definitions, so that women who do not look like women are “supposed to” are not bullied and shamed for the ways they express their femaleness. Who decides how much of which kind of hormone makes someone male or female? In fact, the discovery of testosterone and estrogen as binary sex hormones was not a purely biological event. It was, as Anne Fausto-Sterling described almost twenty years ago, and as Victoria Pitts-Taylor continues to demonstrate, also political. Gender definitions have always been political.
Semenya is a woman, and her body produces higher than average amounts of testosterone. This might be one of the things that makes her fast – some others being qualities of grit, self-discipline, commitment, physical intelligence, the ability to strategize under pressure, and so on. Using her testosterone levels to ban her from running against other women is like setting a height limit for basketball players; if someone is unusually tall, and therefore has an advantage in a sport where height is a benefit, surely they have an unfair advantage over the other players. Ban them. For that matter, why not test the testosterone levels of male runners, and force those with higher than average levels to reduce theirs, so as to be fair to the other athletes? The logic is patently absurd. But there is something about the targeting of Semenya’s gender as the problem – together with her blackness, since they can’t in truth be separated – which really needs to be called out, in the midst of all the other injustices at play in this situation.
Punishing Semenya for being both female and black and very fast, in terms that call into question her gender as something that requires policing, correcting, chemical castration, seems so obviously as assertion of power, a reactive attempt to keep black women, and from there, all women, in their places. It’s vile and cowardly and wrong. It also extends its policing into the lives of all transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, all those humans who do not or cannot conform to the rules that require women and men to exist in complementary and hierarchical relation. It’s an attempt to reduce and impoverish the definitions of what it means to be human. It has to stop.
There is a lot of pushback against this ruling, and I hope there continues to be. I hope it’s quickly overturned. I want to add to my voice, and help spread the word. Please pass this on.