Sunday, August 23, 2009

Looking like your gender

The major controversy which has arisen, concerning the gender of South African athlete Caster Semenya has raised interesting (and rare!) public debate about the issue of gender. The fact that she looks like a boy, runs like a boy, sounds like a boy - but isn't a boy - is the point at issue. Add to the fact that she is black, and we have the contents of a really interesting debate but sadly, without really taking her feelings about the matter into account.
She is, after all, an eighteen year old. And eighteen years old is not old. I cannot imagine being eighteen again, and having my gender being the topic of public debate. But surprisingly, and so much to her credit, I heard her on the radio, saying she was extremely comfortable about who she is, and the public needs to get used to it - in words pretty much to that effect.
In my job, working in 2010 World Cup social legacy, I frequently encounter women who are built like men and who play soccer. There is, however, something quite close to a conspiracy of silence which operates around them. What I mean by that, is that the subject of gender, gender typing and especially sexual orientation, appears to be considered something which should not ever be raised and so we never do. With some of them, their build and their demeanor is, fairly obviously atypically female. But that fact is never alluded to or acknowledged. There is a sense in which, surely, that is the way it should be! In the sport, first and foremost, they are soccer players. Secondly, they are women. The way they look as women is really not the point and has very little to do with anybody else.
Nevertheless, as I have mentioned, even though the atypification is there and it is obvious, it is a taboo subject. And that makes me a bit suspicious about what the real motivation is. Is it that we are all completely relaxed about it? That we, as South Africans are so free from gender typification that discussion on the matter would be superfluous? That would be nice, but I doubt it. Is it, possibly, that lurking behind every woman with a manly body, is a Lesbian? I am sure that this could explain at least some of the avoidance. Or, is it that the possibility of being intersexed is so profoundly unpleasant to most people, that it cannot ever be considered, let alone discussed?
I read some time ago, that the proportion of intersexed people in the human population could be as high as 1% of live births. Now, that is astonishingly high and, if it is even vaguely accurate, it means that the issue of intersexuality is a prevalent and very well hidden secret in our society.
Caster Semenya has established herself as the fastest woman on the planet in the 800m at the World Athletics Championship in Berlin, Germany. She ran the distance in one minute 55.45 seconds. Immediately, there were questions about her gender. Suddenly, the matter of intesexuality and intersex people were the topic of conversation on the radio and the television in a way that has simply never happened before.
And, as the discussion developed, yet another element arose, that of her colour and her origins. The argument was (inaccurately, as it happens) made that had she been white, the issue of her gender would not have been raised. The shadow of Sarah Baartman loomed large - the woman from the Eastern Cape who, because of the (then considered) odd shape of her body, was taken to Europe and put naked on display for the amusement of European audiences.
For the first (and maybe even the second aspect) I think our country owes a great debt of respect and gratitude to Caster Semenya. This whole business could not have been easy for her. And she has dealt with the extraordinary level of hot air and genuine debate with dignity and restraint. The country should be hugely proud of her because of what she has achieved, not only on the track, but also in this extraordinary debacle about her gender. As the Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of Gender Links said: "We should celebrate Semenya on her return not just because she is bringing back a gold medal, but because she has refused to conform to societal norms and expectations."
And the issue of Sarah Baartman should not be simply dismissed, as I have sometimes heard it, as a matter of "dragging race into everything". What happened to Sarah Baartman could be described as a defining moment in the history of South Africa. A Khoisan woman, with bodily features which were not typical of Europe, was captured, enslaved, hauled off to Europe where she was stripped of her clothes and her dignity, prodded, poked, displayed and used for titillation and entertainment, turned into an alcoholic and when she died, had her brain and genitals pickled and kept on display in a museum in France. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the treatment of this woman has had the most profound effect on our people - and will do forever.

And it is this memory, deep in the soul of the nation, which has given rise to the accusation that the demand to test the gender of Caster Semenya is the same mindset which displayed and examined Sarah Baartman. It may be. But that is not to say that therefore, we in South Africa can simply sweep all issues of gender, sexual orientation and intersex under the carpet of silence.
Picture: Caster Semenya (Oliver Morino, AFP)

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