transphobia in sports

The shit that Castor Semenya has to put up with

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the discrimination faced by the South African runner, Castor Semenya. This past week, the Court of Arbitration in Sport upheld a ruling by the IAAF that she may not run in women’s competitions unless she takes medication to lower her testosterone levels to some imagined “norm” for female people. The IAAF helpfully added that she is welcome to run in men’s events if she doesn’t want to take this medication.

 In my last blog I referenced the work that in some cases was, oh, you know, 20 years old, that proves why the rigid binary demarcation of hormones along gendered lines is scientifically inaccurate, and that the investment in correct hormone levels across some binary norm is an invested political fiction. And if you want a latest summary, there is Gina Rippon’s excellent new book, The Gendered Brain, which takes a comprehensive look at the self-fulfilling prophecies of much of the science of gender difference, including hormones.

 There has been, and continues to be, lots of pushback against this ruling, with many people making the point that the best athletes tend to have a biological advantage, and that Michael Phelps also has an natal condition which gives him an advantage over his competitors – but he is considered admirable, not freakish. Here is Trevor Noah on the topic. And make no mistake, Semenya is being disciplined for not being female enough – or for being “as good as a man.” She is being punished for exceeding some artificial notion of what a woman is, because she is winning.   

Here is a really good recent article outlining the flaws in the IAAF judgment, including calling out the transphobic undertones of this ruling and detailing the bad science behind its assumptions. It also points out that the speed advantage Semenya’s naturally high testosterone levels afford her is really not that big, and is utterly unquantifiable. The article, in The Conversation, sums up all the reasons why the ruling is confused, unethical, unreasonable, discriminatory, incoherent, based on false science and reductive thinking, and unjust.

There is one thing none of the protests I have read so far mentions. In addition to the racism, the implicit transphobia, and the gender policing, it seems to me that one of the reasons this is happening to Castor Semenya is because she does not look, at least to Western eyes, “properly” feminine: she is butch. And she is married to a woman. She both “looks” and “behaves” “like a man,” that old chestnut about same-sex-loving women. So I think there is a point to be made about homophobia, too, in this toxic mix. Racism + Gender Policing + Misogyny + Homophobia = The Shit That Castor Semenya Has To Put Up With.

Sis’Castor, you are too good for them.