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"Our Little Girl": No Winners in this Semenya Controversy

Rather than merely fanning the simple-minded flames of conflict, good journalism – intellectual journalism – captures the vital moments of our shared culture and provides us with the perspective that allows us to step back and consider alternative perspectives.

However, that function becomes all the more difficult and more necessary when a conflict that should not even be a conflict arises.

That South African runner Caster Semenya is being subjected to gender testing is bad enough. That the media has now made an already difficult personal matter the subject of public discourse only exacerbates the problem.

How is this relevant to women’s basketball? Or rather, how did this topic make it out of my "randomness" tag?

As an observer of women’s basketball interested in the intersection of race, gender, and sport, this issue of how gender is perceived by the mainstream is of direct interest, if unsettling, to the WNBA. After all, the very notion of a "female athlete" is in many ways a challenge to standard notions of femininity.

And yet, I didn’t even pay attention to the issue when it first hit the public eye. I thought to myself, "how ridiculous – let the woman run" and went on about my day. But after an email exchange with some friends and reading a few half-baked articles, I started to pay more attention.

Fortunately, two real journalists – ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel and The Root’s Kai Wright -- have stepped up and provided the kind of perspective I’ve been craving. As evidenced by the need for Voepel to write her thoughts in two parts, sometimes good writing doesn’t fit neatly into the arbitrary noise of the 24 hour news cycle.

What stood out to me was their thinking about the implications of this story for gender in society beyond this individual athlete.

As bad as it is that her competitors made assessments of her gender based upon her physical appearance, it’s equally bad that those who sought to defend her made equally snap assessments, as Voepel describes.
But … all of this anger directed toward the IAAF and the insistence by so many people that this is unfair and discriminatory seems to be ignoring the possibility that Semenya may have a medical condition that causes gender ambiguity, and that she might also be facing gender-identity conflict.

In the understandable urge to "protect" a person who faces gender questions, well-meaning, sympathetic, open-minded and loving people might be making a mistake. They may be forcing that person into a "closet" that I think is even deeper and harder to talk openly about than that of homosexuality.

Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, said this in a story from the Associated Press: "I stand firm. Yes, indeed, she’s a girl. We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children."

But I want to know this: Has Caster Semenya ever really had the chance to describe and define herself? Isn’t she the only one who has the right to "stand firm" on her gender? Could it be that she’s been convinced by all those around her –well-intentioned as they are – to "be" what they have decided she is?
Even in attempts by the well-intentioned to defend her, it’s as though we’re "always already" trapped within this binary thinking. If indeed, she does have a higher testosterone count – defying our categorizations – what do we do then?

And unfortunately, as described by Wright, this binary thinking is the problem moreso than how we choose to define her within our binary.
We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re man-made, and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place.

Semenya is hardly the first woman — notably, never a man — forced to undergo sex testing to compete in amateur sports. From 1967 to 1999, all female Olympiads were forced to take versions of the test. The phantom menace of men gaming the system to compete as women never materialized, but athletes were nonetheless routinely deemed to have insufficiently pure femininity. Eight women were barred from the 1996 Olympics, the last at which the tests were used, the Los Angeles Times reports.

But the tests are, of course, rigged—because witch hunts always produce witches. That’s the point. Which is the real tragedy of the IAAF’s attack on Caster Semenya. Whatever the doctors determine about her biological sex, at the young age of 18 she’s already learned that she’s a social monster.
The problem beyond the fact of testing is our rigid adherence to gender binaries and our inability – due partially to a lack of language, partially to the privileges that these unjust social hierarchies grant some members of society – to step outside of those boundaries.

Rather than continuing to dismiss the whole thing because we want to fit Semenya in one of our two well-defined boxes, perhaps it’s time to think about the toxicity of the boxes themselves. Gender does matter – it influences our lives. But are these boxes really working? From Courtney at Feministing:
Their first reading could be a new book by Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D.: Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of the Two Sexes. He reports that every year more than 65,000 children are born who aren't obviously either boys or girls. He writes, "In truth, humans come in an amazing number of forms, because human development, including human sexual development, is not an either/or proposition. Instead, between 'either' and 'or' there is an entire spectrum of possibilities.'" The book is really beautifully written, highly accessible, and visionary in its own right. For more on this topic, I also suggest Anne Fausto-Sterling.

The ambiguity of sex may not even be at play with Caster Semenya, but the public's reaction to her performance and body are flash points for our continued discomfort with admitting that the world does not come in such simple dichotomies as we safely like to think it does. My heart goes out to Semenya, who meanwhile has to deal with this shit instead of celebrating her victory and reveling in the moment.
That we so strongly desire to characterize things as normal and abnormal/deviant is a major part of the problem. So even if gender tests fail and people go on calling her "our little girl" does anyone really win? Because either way, Caster Semenya is going to have to deal with the issue on her in private...without the world watching.