Friday, October 16, 2009

Caster Semenya Cast Away to Olympic Sex and Gender Police

Just when you think we’ve had enough intersex controversy after the Lady Gaga exploitation… It appears targeting popstars isn’t enough. Now we’re moving on to Olympic athletes.

I understand that this is now “old news”…which is part of the reason I want to talk about it now. I resisted covering this story during the height of the media craze to see how things might’ve played out before posting, but in the last few weeks, it seems to have died and fizzled.

Here’s another reminder that even if the media craze over Semenya is over, this experience is very likely not over for Semenya herself. Monday morning’s morbid curiosity will be played-out and boring by Friday afternoon, but I can’t imagine that Semenya will not think about (and react strongly to) her Games experiences for every Monday, Friday – and every other day of the week – for years and decades and quarter-centuries to come. That’s a pretty weighty thing to behold.

A brief recap for those who may not have followed the news hype: The sex of Caster Semenya from South Africa, the track-and-field Olympian, was called into question after she apparently shaved ample time off her training record within a few short months. After blasting the competition and breaking the former world record, the IAAF (governing body for the Games rules) publicly called her gender into question. Their stated rationale was that a runner could not have improved so quickly in such a short amount of time. They somehow found it most logical that the reason must be that Semenya’s not REALLY a woman. (I was interested that if they suspected something, they didn’t jump to drug testing, much more prevalent in Olympic history than intersexed individuals competing.) Semenya underwent a battery of extensive tests – gynecological, endocrine, psychological, histological (of internal tissue samples, apparently, to determine whether testicular tissue was present) to determine her sex. Early test results indicated heightened testosterone levels; later results showed that Semenya possessed undescended testes. (Although, ignore the title and inaccurate mention of Semenya as a "hermaphrodite" in that last link. Ugh.) It is unclear whether the IAAF will revoke Semenya’s medal, or whether she will be allowed to compete in future Games.

There are many, MANY troubling aspects to this entire ordeal – some which have been openly criticized, others which have not come to much public light. If the IAAF felt it was necessary for Semenya to undergo testing, they should most definitely not have made their sensationalist announcement publicly; this should have been done quietly and privately, and with Semenya’s consent. Instead, they shocked the world by outing her as a potential freak of a human – but who could be more shocked than Semenya, hearing this news fresh along with the rest of the globe? I cannot imagine how stigmatizing and hurtful this must have been for her, and am appalled that IAAF felt that their press release was appropriate. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. (Although it’s telling that, nearly two months later, they have not apologized to Semenya.)

Speaking of consent, it was also sham-consent that Semenya proffered in the chances of keeping her Olympic gold. Technically, her name was signed to a bunch of medical forms and IAAF statements, I’m sure, but her alternatives were “Undergo invasive testing after a highly public, global scandal” or “Lose the epitome of everything I’ve worked hard for.” Her hands were tied; she couldn’t truly consent. Way to go, IAAF.

Additionally, WHY did IAAF feel it was “necessary” for Semenya to undergo testing in the first place? What could have spurred them to believe that Semenya’s gender identity did not match up with her sex? (Many intersex individuals would beat me senseless at this point for phrasing that last sentence the way I did; I assure you this will be the subject of future posts.) Well, apparently her fellow competitors accused her of "being a man" because of her appearance and prowess on the field. Because the IAAF fell trap to narrow, stereotypic views of what a female should look like and what she can accomplish, they took these accusations seriously and investigated Semenya with no just cause other than some unsportsmanlike belly-aching. Simply, IAAF felt her angular jaw and curtailed finish-time were proof enough that Semenya couldn’t be a woman. A woman couldn’t possibly fall so far outside a Western ideal of beauty. (Never mind that she’s South African. Don’t consider that perhaps global beauty standards aren’t toe-in-line with Western standards. What a silly notion!) A woman couldn’t possibly improve so much without some sort of a “boost.” (It is unclear how a vast improvement might be interpreted if this track-and-field event was a men’s event; would Semenya have endured the same criticism? That a man couldn’t possibly improve so much so quickly? Or, in reverse: Would a man whose performance had decreased rapidly over a few months be accused of not being a man? Would the IAAF have publicly announced that the man wasn’t simply a slacker, a victim of health problems, etc., but was perhaps a woman?) If Semenya had conformed to Western beauty standards, even with her drastic performance increase, I am unsure the IAAF would have placed the question mark (or perhaps, more fittingly, a scarlet “I” in their exploitation of intersex) next to Semenya’s name.

Drawing parallels to the Lady Gaga debacle, there has been huge confusion in this case as Semenya having “come out” as interesex in the end, after all. Semenya has NOT “come out.” Coming out is an intentioned choice, one that should be authentic to your desires and an empowering (though often, simultaneously terrifying) act. Semenya has been publicly EXPLOITED – a far cry from said coming out. Additionally, a subtly different flavor of exploitation has been taken on in Semenya’s case, versus Lady Gaga’s, because it was assumed by the media that Lady Gaga deliberately chose to keep private that she was intersex, transgender, the big marshmallow man at the end of Ghostbusters, or whatever else they tried to ascribe to her on scant “evidence.” That, of course, led to the hunt to find evidence confirming the deep, dark (and apparently, shameful) truth about Lady Gaga’s sex and gender. The difference in Semenya’s case is that Semenya herself, and those closest to her, have maintained before and after the test results came out that Semenya is a woman, and therefore she wasn’t “hiding” anything, taking the exploitation bit to a whole new level. Athletics South African president Leonard Cheune also strongly supported Semenya: “I will continue to defend the girl, I will continue to do anything, even if I am to be kicked out of Berlin, Germany, but I am not going to let that girl be humiliated in the manner that she was humiliated because she has not committed a crime whatsoever. Her crime was to be born the way she is born.” (Emphasis added.) Absolutely heartbreaking quotes include her father, Jacob’s: “She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times.”

Jacob’s use of the word “gender” and not “sex,” I think, perfectly encapsulates another very important aspect of this problem. The IAAF wanted clarification on Semenya’s sex, not her gender. Semenya’s gender was known all along – by Semenya herself. I couldn’t find any IAAF contentions with Semenya’s gender identity, only with her sex. Even though they didn’t question her sex outright before she competed, even though her increased performance was known beforehand? I doubt the IAAF realized the repercussions forcing individuals to submit to tests for sex could potentially have on their gender identities. Having your world rocked by gender dysphoria is not fun, from my own experiences. And really – was it okay for the IAAF to question Semenya’s sex AFTER-THE-FACT, after her medal was won? Especially based on tenuous observations? The whole ordeal is a disgusting mess.

I think it’s fantastic that Semenya, post-testing, is unwilling to let her medical examiners, the IAAF, or anyone else tell her what her gender identity is – something only she can know and assert. “God made me the way I am, and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.” (Emphasis mine.) On the flip side, it’s not duty to defend her gender to the world. That’s her business, and that shouldn’t be questioned, or need to be defended. It’s a sad commentary on her experience that she was (directly or indirectly) spurred to do this. Again, ugh.

And that isn’t all. The You magazine photo-shoot response after the test results made me see red. I was like, “First Semenya has to defend herself as woman to the IAAF, and now she has to prove it by getting all gussied up in stereotypical Western female attire? Are you fucking kidding me?!” But Semenya isn’t buying into the bull. “I didn’t do this to prove a point, but rather to have fun…I don’t give a damn what people say about me.” Caster Semenya is a total badass.

In closing thoughts, Semenya isn’t the first intersex Olympian to have competed in the Games, nor will she be the last. Depending, IAAF officials don’t have any problems giving individuals with certain forms of intersex the a-okay. Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), for example, is characterized in part by the fact that CAIS individuals don't use the testosterone their bodies make. The little molecular hands that should grab onto the testosterone couldn’t do it, and so I developed hyper-feminine features, although sans uterus, ovaries, etc. (See two blog posts back for more information!) If I actually had the athletic talent (I don’t), I would have been able to compete in the Games without the harassment and sensationalization incurred by Semenya. In fact, several intersex individuals competed in Atlanta. So, while some intersex individuals may compete in future games (WITHOUT having their sex and gender identities aired publicly, and without consent), is it possible that a situation like Semenya’s may be endured by future athletes, whose dreams include only Olympic gold and not a search for their potentially hidden gonads? Will they lose their medals? Will Semenya? More importantly, what other costs might they bear in undergoing such a trial? I’m not sure what to expect for future intersex competitors, but I’m unconvinced the IAAF received enough flack to prevent this from happening again. (Awesomely notable exception: The Irish Times. Flutter.)

We'll just have to wait and see in the aftermath.

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