Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya and the intersex row

Pic: Sally Gross from Intersex South Africa

As I said when I commented before, Caster Semenya has unwittingly raised the debate about intersex in a way which we have never before experienced in this country. Because now we have the possible anomaly of an intersex person, who is a national hero (I use the word generically), who is black and who has been unbelievably badly treated by the media, the IAAF, and by every bigot in and out of town, the world over.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as she usually manages to do, was in the right place, saying the right things. It is extraordinary to me how she manages to do this - and I say this with the utmost respect and admiration. Because few others of her ilk do the same. If there are flood victims, she is there. If some white shoots black kids on a farm somewhere, she is there. If someone like Caster Semenya is abused by the media after a stunning world championship, she is at the airport to greet her. I have always admired Madikizela-Mandela, despite her many flaws.

But South Africa as a whole, for the first time in history, has had to face the issue of intersex. The radio stations have been jammed with people expressing their opinions on the matter. You will hear it discussed in the lift. I just saw a long interview on the television with Sally Gross, who heads Intersex South Africa talking about the difficulties which intersex people have, the challenges they are faced with, the prevalence of the thing (she said that in South Africa it is as high as 1/500 – as opposed to a world average of 1/2000, which is still pretty high!)

I remember years ago, when I was a priest in rural Lesotho, having to trek for miles into the mountain to a really rural village to bury an extremely old woman. When we got to the village, we found it in trauma. The old lady had been someone everyone in the village had grown up with. Everyone knew her, and loved her. But when the body was washed before burial, it was discovered that she had male genitalia. The discovery traumatised the entire village.

And the same sort of thing is what has happened with Caster Semenya. The official report is still to be released, but bigots should take no comfort in that at all – because the findings seem to have been leaked. She is, in all likelihood, intersex. And sport, like religion, it would appear, does not have a category for anything other than the binary male/female formula. And the people are traumatised because of it.

One wonders why? If this is a condition which is as prevalent as it appears to be, then why is this all so much of a surprise? I note, in the newspapers, at the same time as this story is breaking, that there is another – saying that conservative churches in South Africa, with apparent close ties to the ruling African National Congress, are starting to lobby hard on getting rights guaranteed to Gay and Lesbian people, removed from the statute books, and presumably also, the Constitution.

I would ask them (but of course, they will not hear and nor will they answer intelligibly) just to pause for a moment or two before they rush headlong over the Gadarene cliff, to consider Caster Semenya. Who made her the way she is? Is it her parents fault perhaps? Is it God’s? Or is it just a feature of as yet uncelebrated human diversity?

The salutary point is that often, things are not quite what they might seem. And books should not be judged by covers. And the human species is hugely diverse.

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