Caster Semenya has done the unthinkable in women’s sports: she runs “like a man.” Besting her sister runners by a longshot in the 800 meters in the World Championships in Berlin a few weeks ago, she drew the instant condemnation that girls across the decades have drawn whenever they are too smart in class, too forceful in the board room, too strong in the gym, or too accomplished in the workplace.
You don’t have to be a world class runner to recognize this moment – whether you came into womanhood at the height of the women’s movement or the hip-hop era, not much has changed. Women exceeding gendered expectations of achievement are often forced out of the game at the suggestion that their drive to accomplish exceeds the boundaries of genteel femininity. The only worse epithet than being called a “feminist” these days is to be called a man.
From Babe Zaharias to Hillary Clinton, women who refuse to be limited by what-has-been must endure a public that is deeply ambivalent about women trailblazers.
She also stands in a long line of gender variant people who threaten the very definitions of “man” and “woman” and call into question the ways that we organize our sports, our toy stores, and even the pink and blue cribs in our nurseries.
Over and over this week, I have read various commentary that distinguishes between “sex,” a supposed biological fact and “gender” which is socially constructed. The Olympic committee, according to this wisdom, must conduct a multi-layered examination – physical, psychological, and hormonal – to determine if Semenya is “objectively,” “biologically” female. For while the characteristics we arbitrarily assign to masculine and feminine genders obviously vary greatly across cultures, races, and centuries, the biology of sex is put forth as a fixed, unwavering truth.
All of which is non-sense. Social beings embedded in certain cultures, traditions, and scientific eras create the list of “qualifiers” for being biologically female or male. I find it interesting that I couldn’t find the all-important “list” in any of the dozens of articles I read this week on Semenya’s trial. A vagina apparently isn’t sufficient to qualify a person as biologically female. Testosterone figures into the calculus – how much is too much? There’s a mysterious, undefined psychological aspect to the testing. What characteristics trump others in the quest to qualify as biologically female?
Shortly after the medal ceremony, Semenya submitted herself to a public exam on her “sex,” dimming a moment that should have been a shining celebration of her stunning achievement. In response, the South African government, family and friends stood behind their gender non-conforming daughter, noting that a long history of racialized sexism in the Olympics includes a chapter in which efforts were made to separate all Black women athletes from competing against their white counterparts because Black women were regarded as not-quite-female due to their race.
While whispers of high levels of testosterone and ambiguous genitalia light up the blogosphere, we must ask ourselves – why isn’t anyone listening to Caster Semenya? She was raised a girl, has competed as a girl for years before this great victory on the international stage, and most importantly — Semenya identifies as a woman.
If there’s no other lesson that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights movement has taught the larger culture over the past forty years, I hope it is this one: the right to self-determination is paramount. Gender variant people around the world are watching Semenya’s struggle with a mixture of pride, anxiety and hope. No authority – religious, parental or in this case Olympic – should trump one’s right to self-determination, identity and expression.
by Jamie Grant
Director of the Policy Institute at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force