Friday, February 12, 2010

Caster Semenya: Further Punishment by the IAAF For Just Being Herself

It you do a random Google search for Caster Semenya nowadays, it's depressing. There's two different kinds of articles you'll see:

1) "Caster Semenya: Is This Hermie REALLY A Boy or a Girl?"

2) "Caster Semenya Can't Compete Because of The IAAF."

Let's break it down, shall we?

The articles in article-type 1) are especially depressing, because they show an utter lack of understanding of really basic sex and gender theory that should absolutely be required to be exposed to. These articles are under the impression that sex can only be male or female (i.e., "What's intersex? Is it catching?"). And, in the supposedly rare instance someone's intersex,it's obviously just some sort of a technicality..."Okay, okay Caster's intersex (air quotes here). But is Caster REALLY a he or a she? She's GOTTA be one or the other." Actually, no she doesn't. Like some intersex individuals, she may state that she is biologically male or female (female, in this case) that happens to have a medical condition (a perspective that we'll talk about extensively later). Or she may state that she is biologically intersex, or a variety of other identifications.

These articles are also under the impression that "being a boy" and "being a girl" means that one's sex and gender must match up. A boy is male-bodied, and his gender is male (i.e., he conforms to his male gender role, doing, liking, and acting how society thinks he, as a male, should be - at least for the most part). A girl is female-bodied, and her gender is female, similarly conforming to female gender roles as described. This is very, very interesting because being a "boy" or "girl" in terms of gender - if they had bothered to make the distinction, anyway - is presented as something that is a fixed concept in every single culture worldwide. There are many cultures with very, very different ideas about what biological men and women do, and what subsequent gender roles they have. Some cultures also have concepts of people that are intersex, who also have gender roles. (We'll devote a post to this...don't want to talk too much about it now.) The way we view sex and gender in the US, and what each's relationship is to the other, is NOT the global universal that these articles assume.

The articles in article-type 2) are simply salt in huge, festering wound that is the public exploitation of Caster Semenya. So, when Caster Semenya's competitors bemoaned her talent and stated that she CAN'T be that good being a "real" woman, the IAAF forced her to undergo weeks of physical and psychological examinations. The IAAF has subsequently released that Caster is intersex (or "a hermaphrodite," depending on how totally biologically inaccurate the news source is). They won't release what her specific intersex variation, however. Now, this is certainly not a bad thing, as they shouldn't have said, "HEY, WORLD! Caster doesn't know this yet, but we don't think she's female! So we're going to put her through all these tests and torture. WE JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW. Come on, Caster! Also, we might need that medal back," in the first place. I do not advocate them releasing any more information out about things that should've never been brought to public light anyway, at least not without enthusiastic consent from Semenya. However, in a theoretical sense, depending on which condition Semenya possesses, it might not exclude her from competing with women in future competitions. Those intersex athletes competing in womens' competitions that HAVE been excluded have been so mainly if they exhibit raised levels of testosterone (i.e., up to "typical male" levels) and/or male musculature - perceived as giving them a biological advantage over non-intersex females. Those reports that have come out already have stated that Semenya possesses higher testosterone levels, although just HAVING those levels doesn't neccessarily mean anything. If my own partial testes were not removed shortly after birth, I would be making heightened levels of testosterone, too, but my intersex affects the cellular receptor that "grabs" onto testosterone molecules so they can be used by the body. I could pump all the testosterone through my body I could make, and it wouldn't mean a damn thing, because no matter how much I produced, I could NEVER USE ANY OF IT. Just producing heightened testosterone levels doesn't mean Semenya's body is actually CAPABLE OF USING IT. This is a distinction that has not been made by the press.

It's so awful in general that the IAAF has been (temporarily?) barred from competition in the first place. If the test results have justified their claims that Semenya has a biological advantage over competitiors - i.e., she can make AND use her "male"-level testosterone and/or has male musculature - then they should tell her if they haven't already. (It's possible they actually have, and instead told articles they're just "deliberating" to stave off looking like bad guys until the public forgets about it and doesn't care about Semenya's exploitation anymore. Nice.) But right now, the IAAF, after putting her through all this bullshit, are still trying to pawn themselves off as the good guys. In one of the most nauseating quotes to date in this whole mess, check this one out:

"Gideon Sam, president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, issued a statement Friday saying she would be ineligible for competition until the investigation is over.

The matter over the results of her gender test are still sitting with the international parent association, the IAAF," he said in the statement. "They are still conducting their work and the process is ongoing. And we have to respect the privacy of the athlete, so any 'confirmation' is premature."

Are you kidding me, IAAF? You apparently can't let Semenya compete until you PUBLICLY announce this information, furthering the exploitation once again. And then, you're only doing this for her OWN GOOD, right? Unbelieveable.

Listen up, shoddy news sources. There's a pretty awesome document that the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group (AISSG, a UK organization) has put up that's absolutely spot-on. Rock on, AISSG.

You might notice that I haven't linked to very many articles. This is because 1) looking at the vast majority of them spreading the same misinformation and normalizing this exploitation just makes me ill, and 2) you can see evidence of these two article types easily by clicking on almost any article you Google in the first few hit pages. If you want to see the damage by doing a play-by-play of all the articles, definitely do so to see what you're up against. If I linked to all the releveant ones, though, it wouldn't save you any time and I'd be up all night hyperlinking. I don't necessarily mind doing that, but not to link to awful shit like this.

In conclusion, get your act together, news media. You're just making this already disgraceful situation worse. If you're going to report about this, make it biologically accurate and shed some light on why the IAAF's exploitation isn't okay, instead of trying to guess which bits Semenya's got in her pants, huh?

A Fine Line Between Cowardice and Courage...OR, Make Your Own Crisis/Wellness Plan

Hi, everyone. I originally chalked up my posting hiatus to, "Oh, man, I'm just SO SWAMPED with school." Granted, graduate studies do suck up most of my time, and there are many days when I literally don't have a moment to do something for myself. There are always moments during the day that you can affect change - by challenging yourself and others, helping someone out, etc. - but I've found that writing a post coherently requires me to have, you know, some minimal level of brain function you just don't have sometimes after playing the I Just Read A Massive Pile of Articles Game (P.S. What's My Name Again?).

But my time away has clocked in at just over 3 months. Surely I could've finished any one of the six blog posts I have half-written in my Blogger account in a 3-month period, right? On certain times when I had downtime, I simply didn't post anything. I'd feel this tightening in my chest, and my brain would start to whirr, and I'd think, "You know what I haven't done in a while? This really useless activity that I don't even enjoy that much. I should go do that. No time for blogging about stuff I actually care about!" And then I'd actually go and do that and then later feel like crap because I could've been raising awareness, learning along with others that may be keeping up with this project. A week or two of doing this very easily turned into a very long time. It took a while for me to figure out why.

So, I've decided it's time to be honest. I'm no quitter, and I'm super-excited about doing this blog. But the truth is, I'm kind of scared shitless about it sometimes.

I'm comfortable with myself a lot of of the time, but documenting my feelings and forcing myself to reflect on how I identify and how I see the world is pretty sobering. I don't always like what I see, and don't always want to deal with the aftermath after I see it. I've been able to push ahead during those first few posts, but I think I reached a point where I just needed to regroup.

I'm not just indulging in some blogosphere martyrdom. (Save your virtual chocolates for a better cause!) Rather, I'm thinking that it's not unique for individuals processing their own (or their loved ones') sex and gender issues to be scared shitless, at whatever stage they're at. It's not like I'm scared to see myself in the mirror for the first time since I've started writing publicly, and it's not like after writing this blog for a while I'll magically just feel freaking wonderful about myself all the time and never have any problems ever again. *cue a unicorn crapping a rainbow while everyone joins hands and signs something adorable*

I've had difficulties processing who I am, how I relate to myself, and how the world relates to me and others like me since I've know that I'm intersex. I know that many, many, many other people that are sex and gender variant feel the same way. Intersex people are routinely shamed, criminalized, and pathologized by the medical system, our society, and even by those that love and care for us the most whether it's intentioned or not. It's a lot of shit to swallow a lot of the time, and it's super, super, SUPER important have good mental health to get us through the tough times. Even more so if you have other factors in your life that are already making you (predisposed to) having poorer mental health.

So, I want to use my mini-crisis as a way to talk about how important self-care is, and how often we don't get it. There's a particular book that I really love, called Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction, by Sabrina Chapadjiev. It's a book of essays about stong, totally badass women that take life experiences they've had that almost broke them (or sometimes did) and use those situations as impetuses for change. They used their worst moments to inform their art, activism, new relationship with themselves, etc. This work has lit a fire under my butt several thousand times now, to use some of the crap I've gone through to do something positive. (In part, these brave women are one of the many reasons I started my journey as an activist.)

There's one particular essay in this book by Bonfire Madigan, a cellist whose explorations of her own mental health and mental health care systems in general is often the inspiration for her music. In her essay, she describes how touring so much often left her little time to connect with what was going on in her mind, and her mood and disposition were pretty drastically affected, negatively. In order to monitor her mood and encourage holistic well-being, she created what she calls a Crisis/Wellness Plan. She handed out her Crisis/Wellness Plan at her shows for free, and has inspired tons of other people to do the same. In this plan, she has several sections:

1) "For When I'm Feeling = Triggers" - Here, she describes the emotions or events that are triggering, or cause her to fall into a state of despondency, anger, anxiety, depression, etc. Recognizing what causes you to go into crisis mode and how to recognize when it happens by tracking your thoughts & feelings is half the battle. You can't know if you're having a mental health crisis if you have no yardstick by which to assess your behavior and mindstate.

2) "Healthy Opposites = Activities to Do Instead" - When you're feeling awful, it's really easy to revert to behaviors and thought-patterns that are unproductive and don't help you out of the hole you're now in. Sure, you can ride out the wave and hope it doesn't swallow you up this time...or, you could be pro-active in recognizing what's going on and say, "You know what? I naturally might want to hide under the covers, act self-destructively toward myself, etc., but I'm going to take this energy that is turning inward against me and use it for self-care." She lists a bunch of activities that she is going to do when she feels these triggering feelings, instead of letting her feelings rule her. SHE'S in control.

3) "Sew Damn Glad to Be Alive = Next Steps" - These are more activities to do when she's experiencing triggering feelings. Unlike Step 2), however, this is more of a play-by-play list of how to pick a "healthy opposite," stick to it for awhile, monitor your progress, pick another healthy opposite if you have to, etc. It's a list of How to Use The Healthy Opposites, and How to Recover If The Plan Gets Derailed.

Everyone obviously has their own coping mechanisms that work for them. I'm a pretty methodical person, though, and I have always found it helpful to write things down in order to make sense of them, or to make myself feel better. Both the act of writing and seeing what so very much confused me in black and white made me calm and feel in control. The chaos looked a lot less chaotic, and just like any other problem I could probably fix (maybe with some time, experience, or some extra help from someone wise...a little or a lot). If you process your feelings the way I do (or even if you're unsure if you do), trying something similar to the Crisis/Wellness Plan might be worth a shot.

I'll show you an excerpt from my own Crisis/Wellness Plan. (I haven't shared everything because even though the personal is political, that doesn't mean everything personal should be public, either.)

Claudia's Crisis/Wellness Plan

1) For When I Feel...
Inadequate Unliked Unloved Misunderstood Stupid Worthless Rageful Inconsolable Naive Depressed Incapable Patronized Abandoned Imbalanced Numb

2) I Can Do...
Reading and learning something new
Going for a brisk walk and enjoying nature
Blogging for Full Frontal Activism (!)
Making art
Listeing to affirming music
Writing songs or poetry
Reading biographies of kick-ass people I want to emulate
Cleaning my apartment and organizing my files
Phoning someone I love
Getting together with friends; talk it out
Making delicious, nourishing food

3) My Game Plan Is...
a) Allow self to sulk
b) Identify feelings & why I'm feeling them
c) Acknowledge they're there
d) Feel them. Really feel them. Don't hold back. Nothing you feel is wrong. NOTHING.
e) Allow your feelings to be felt and pass. Let them go when they're ready. Don't rush or try to "snap out of it." You'll just have to deal with it later.
f) Don't have expectations of what you "should" be, do, think, act like, dress like, etc.
g) Just keep being.
h) Keep being and do something positive.
i) Choose a healthy opposite.
j) Say out loud that you're going to do the healthy opposite. It'll make it real. Say, "I'm going to do [this healthy opposite] right now."
k) Do it.
l) If that particular healthy opposite isn't working after making an effort to do it for a while, try a new healthy opposite.
m) Repeat a) through l) as needed.
n) Just keep trying until you feel better
o) Love and BE! :)

Everyone's Crisis/Wellness plan will likely look different. Not everything I do will work for everyone else. Not everything other people do that work for them will work for me. It's all personalized, and that's the beauty of it. You can endlessly alter and revise your CWP to suit your needs at any given moment. Awesome, right?

Additionally, things that are also very viable options to include in your CWP:
1) Therapy (single or group) person, over the phone, or online (e.g., for the last one, like AIS Support Group) (something I may end up adding soon to my CWP!) ...Make sure your therapist is someone SPECIFICALLY TRAINED in sex and gender issues, however!
2) Go to a support conference, like the AISG has annually (see link above)
3) Visit a community center near you for information and support services (search the web for places in your region)
4) Calling up a crisis hotline, like one of the following (for US residents), although be sure to look into others on your own, as well, that I might've missed:

For youth...
GLBT National Youth Talkline (through age 25) - 1-800-246-PRIDE (7743)
Rainbow Youth Hotline - 877/LGBT-YTH (542-8984)
Trevor (GLBTQQI Youth Suicide Prevention) Helpline - 866/4U-TREVOR (488-7386)
National Suicide Hotline - 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
United States Youth Crisis Hotline - 1-800-448-4663

...and for adults.
GLBT National Hotline 1-888-THE-GLNH (843-4564)
National Suicide Hotline - 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

Do whatever it is to engage in the best self-care you can. In another essay from Live Through This..., Daphne Gottleib puts it best, writing, "A few weeks ago, when I couldn't write, I sat before the sadow of the wave on the couch in front of the TV. But then, I called in help, friends I can trust, professional allies. I hit the marks on the responsibilities I had to and cancelled the rest. I acted as if I had a bad flu, an emotional hangover. Because I did. I took care of myself firest, compassionately. It's taken me twenty years to lear how to do just this much." Whether these allies are actual human friends, or the healthy opposites you've taken time to identify and stand at the ready to help pick you up when you're down, this is what it's all about.

I invite you to join me, and the many other individuals that have followed Bonfire Madigan's lead in creating a Crisis/Wellness Plan.

And as for posting? Whenever I'm writing about something triggering, I'll try following my CWP. Hopefully, this means that a lot more blog posts will be coming in the future now that I've identified what's REALLY going on.

Have a happy day of holistic health.

<3, Claudia