In Semenya’s shoes: The deconstruction and reconstruction of gender and sexuality

by Bose Maposa and Siphokazi Magadla

For any track and field athlete, the World Championships are the main event, the center stage to prove their worth in the world league and claim their place amongst the greatest. Qualifying to attend these games is an honor in itself; winning a medal a glory; whilst a gold medal is the ultimate dream. One cannot begin to imagine what this could mean for an 18 year old first timer. But for Caster Semenya, the South African teenager who has emerged into the international headlines for breaking the 800m running world record this monumental moment has been overshadowed by the international outcry she has caused. The Semenya ‘saga’ has forced even those who do not care much for sports to pick sides (with her or the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)) after she was asked by the athletics body to undergo a gender test.

She has received different names and caused varied reactions, from ‘ Ms/Mr Semenya‘ in an attempt to ridicule her to ‘Yes indeed she is a woman, but maybe an ugly one‘ in attempt to defend her. Some have even swayed from discussing the gold medalist and turned to talking more about the performance of her runner-up in the finals. Some have accused South Africans and other Africans who have come to her defense as blindly nationalistic or as Marx said under the spell of ‘false consciousnesses’. While others maintain that the teenager is innocent until proven guilty, or that she remains sexless until proven otherwise, a game of cat and mouse but with no finish line is in sight. Amongst other things, she has highlighted the prejudices and the ambiguity of the fine line between gender and sexuality, and most importantly those held by the IAAF.

Gender is said to be a social construction while sex is a biological definition. As straightforward as this may seem, it is apparently not that simple. The IAAF asked Semenya to take a gender test, despite the fact that she was born female and raised as a woman (this is according to both her mother and her South African birth certificate), as this does not automatically qualify her to be a female in their standards. Let us note that they do have a set of conditionalities- biological, which determine where one falls in the gender category. Presumably Semenya and her family’s conviction about her feminity are based on those simplistic social characteristics that we demand from everyone primarily the genital location of the person not just appearance. But the IAAF wanted an investigation seeking to go beyond these social requirements, that is to find out if Semenya has unusually high levels of testosterone, even though she is a woman, which give her an additional advantage over other female competitors. Biologically this is plausible of course, but all of us know that the social implications of this question are fundamentally problematic. Apparently for strength and athletics, at the end of the day this social construction of gender and sexuality does not matter and the distinction lie in hormones. Telegraph Sport revealed that she has three times the normal level of testosterone in her body for a female, but comprehensive results will be available after a couple of weeks.

When the races are over, she has to come back and live within her society. The tests prove that she has this hormonal imbalance so does that in our eyes make her a man? In which category would she run in the future? How should she lead her life from now on, as a man or woman? Is she supposed to slip into a dress or stick to just pants? How can we expect the family of a teenager from rural South Africa to have this biological understanding of their daughters’ anatomy, or anyone’s family to conceive of such questions?

Though Athletics South Africa (ASA) has come out to defend her (and even had to go as far as begging her to go to the podium to accept the medal) one cannot help but wonder about the extent of this defense? Could they have done a better job? A BBC article reported that the IAAF claimed that it had required the gender test three weeks prior to the event. Nonetheless, ASA did not oblige. Additionally, though it has not been established just how close the Head Coach of the South African Athletics team was working with Semenya, Telegraph Sport reported that the coach has been in the past involved in scandals regarding hormonal enhancements and doping activities. Was ASA right in hiring someone with such a past?

How can we use Semenya’s personal humiliation to re-negotiate sexuality and gender? French feminist Simone de Beauvoir is famous for having declared “one is not born but becomes a woman.” As an athlete Semenya is expected to be extraordinarily fit, build muscle that goes beyond those of ordinary women. In doing so, did Semenya fail to become the woman that de Beauvoir speaks of? How should women in sports distinguish themselves as athletes but still conform to our societal expectations of womanhood? Let us not also ignore the fact that this issue highlights the fascinating notion of the relation between gender and race; the core of both concepts being power. Is it a coincidence that many of the social networking groups in support of Semenya also see themselves as defending African women in particular, not just women as a group?

With the soccer World Cup in South Africa just around the corner, can South Africa really afford to be consumed by such international headlines? Alternatively, what does the behavior of the IAAF in the handling of this matter say about our international institutions in their ability to do their job without sacrificing the respect and dignity of athletes and humiliate them as it has occurred with Semenya? The power of sports lies in its ability to construct identities, form values, combat developmental challenges and bring about behavioral change. As we look forward to the World Cup, we hope that the event will help construct African identities and positive African images. We hope that Semenya (regardless of the gender results) will be a stifling force to fight gender prejudices within the sports arena and act as an opinion leader to help mitigate these social ambiguities.


6 Responses to In Semenya’s shoes: The deconstruction and reconstruction of gender and sexuality

  1. Outstanding article…we are constantly tried and convicted for our heritage. We have to prove ourselves in the office, classroom, and sporting events. That was uncalled for by the IAAF and the media of course. The IAAF administration should all resign and further compensate our lovely Caster Semenya for defamation of character. The sporting arena has always been a place for all to express themselves regardless of their sex and socio-economic status, but now is becoming a place to humiliate and destroy our brothers and sisters dreams. Watch out for dream killers! Long Live Semenya!!!

  2. I was really appalled at a skit in this week’s episode of Last Say on Sunday, 23 August, on SABC 3 in which Caster Semenya was made fun of in a remix version of Michael Jackson’s song 'black or white'. I was really shocked at the insensitivity of this show, its producers, SABC 3 and SABC towards a young 18 year old girl who is going through what is possibly the toughest time in her life!

    I don't even know how it was decided to even flight that skit with some white cowboy looking character singing lyrics such as "Caster are you a boy or a girl", "do you have winnie or…" and the sound of recorded laughing lacing the mockery of a song. I don't see how making a mockery of someone's private parts (and this issue is about for more than that) is funny.

    I mean all this in the week where the controversy is still fresh, Caster was not even in the country to defend herself and what about the pain and humiliation her family and friends who saw that programme?!

    A friend of mine, a guy, says I'm over reacting because this is a satirical show. But does that mean it cannot have boundaries? I'm all for humour but I think SABC has a responsibility to protect this young girl dignity at some level, to get the country to rally behind her and those close to her and not add to the scorn and big joke she is being made around the world!

    I was shocked and disappointed and don't see myself watching Last Shock on Sunday again. I not only found it this discriminatory, but also extremely sexist and downright racist! All this to a young black youth in Women’s Month!

    Moagisi (I did write to SABC 3, if you were wondering)

  3. The authors have raised several interesting questions but they provide no answers to those questions. It would be great to see how both of you would respond to all the questions you raised.

  4. I don't know if you guys have seen this, but as of today, the tests performed are saying she is a hermaphrodite.
    Not sure what this means for sports, but the politics and justice part cannot be ignored.

  5. I would suggest that we wait for the confirmation from the IAAF as they say that they won't comment till their next meeting in November. From a thunderous welcome in South Africa,to the recent makeover on the South African YOU magazine, the Semenya story continues to unravel. Strangely enough before the the YOU cover I had rightfully predicted with a friend that the next step would be to see Semenya with a makeover in some magazine. This was due to someone complaining that she had been given 60 000 rands by ASA (this amount I cannot confirm). To which many also responded it was for her to get a makeover.

    And what do you know, "SA's power girl is turned into a glamour girl- and she loves it" as YOU claims. In this article we had asked how female athletes must distinguish themselves as athletes and still fit into our social imagination of womanhood. If anything this magazine cover proves our point exactly, 'go break that record girl, but you better make sure that you will still look good in those dresses and the heels, and you better make sure that you love it too'. Anonymous above had observed that we came with a lot of good questions but with no answers. We didn't need to provide answers. It seems like everyone knows them already. The answer being- let's welcome the poor girl with a thunderous applause, let's tell her a million times that she IS a woman. And to prove it, lets give her a makeover!

    • I don’t see the support of pepole and the support of the truth as being an either/or proposition. And in most instances, the truth is a matter of perspective. Some pepole hear about the results of Caster Semenya’s gender testing and think that the truth is uncovered because the woman has neither womb nor ovaries but has undeveloped testes that are producing more testosterone than normal for the average woman and therefore she is not a one hundred percent female and therefore is unqualified to be competing with females. That is their truth. But for other pepole, the truth has yet to be determined.According to a couple of Australian news reports, the results of the gender testing mandated from the International Association of Athletics Foundation have determined that Ms. Semenya is not quite right. But in all honestly, she hasn’t been determined to be all wrong. For many pepole, the truth is that Ms. Semenya suffers from a birth defect. It is an unfortunate circumstance for a number of females throughout human history. The truth is that there are experts that say Ms. Semenya should be allowed to race as a woman. According to experts like Dr. Myron Genel, a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Yale University, and Dr. Louis Elsas, chairman of biochemistry at the University of Miami, and Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, past president of the American College of Medical Genetics, the truth is that Ms. Semenya is a female with a birth defect. The whole matter is as simple as that. All three of these doctors are members of the panel of experts convened by the IAAF back in 1990 that helped to frame the standards for genetic gender testing.According to these doctors, the concern that women with XY chromosomes have a competitive advantage is not true. According to Dr. Simpson, any elite athlete has a competitive advantage. Otherwise why would they bother becoming an athlete? Dr. Simpson believes that the issue should be limited to simply determining whether men are masquerading as women. And it is Dr. Simpson’s opinion that Ms. Semenya is clearly a woman. The truth is that a woman with the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome means that she doesn’t respond to testosterone. It also means that she doesn’t have a competitive advantage from having an XY chromosome. And that’s the truth.With that in mind we have to be careful not to jump to any inconclusive conclusions. Although the results may appear to be definitive, the truth is that they really aren’t. More often than not things are much more complex than they appear. When it comes to the dealings of the human community, things are rarely as simple as black and white. In many respects, the case involving Ms. Semenya’s gender is not even close to being a certain conclusion. If anything, it’s just starting. And while I support the search for the truth, I continue to support Ms. Semenya in this ordeal. While pepole continue to write Ms. Semenya off as some freak of nature, I will continue to support her as a young female in the black community. Her gender was already answered when she was given approval to run with other women. While other pepole are happy to dissect her and put her personal business out there for all to see in a so called search for truth, the truth is we are heading into uncharted territory.If we allow the truth to be told we would admit that there are a ton of things that we simply don’t understand about this entire affair. To think that we can sit back and allow others to make the determination as to what constitutes femininity or masculinity means we allow ourselves to sit back and allow others make the definition as to what it means to be human. There’s nothing wrong with adding our own voice to the conversation. We should be allowed to agree. We should be allowed to disagree. But whatever we decide, we should make our decision in the search for all the truths and not just the ones that support our perceptions of what we have predetermined to be the truth.Peace

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