I remember well when Caster Semenya came home after her first gold win and the controversy it stirred over her sex. Among the many placards at the airport, one carried by a young man read: “Don’t worry Caster, I will marry you!”
In other words, she would be “normalised” according to what would make us all comfortable, and all would be well in the public psyche.
In the event, Semenya married a woman. And here we are, nearly a decade later, incensed by the ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on her testosterone levels, but arguably no closer to understanding sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
Is it Caster, or just the gold medals, driving our appeal? If we fail to use this moment to challenge not only the IAAF but also our own stereotypes, we may win the battle but lose the war.
Let’s start with the facts. After that first win, Semenya was subjected to a “gender verification test”. Actually, it was a “sex” verification test, because gender is a social construct. Sex, on the other hand, refers to biological difference. By whatever checklist that was used (and we now know that the differences between men and women are not cast in stone), the IAAF pronounced Semenya a woman. She went on winning.
The issue of testosterone levels continued to rear its head. Test results are reported to show that Semenya’s body secretes three times the “normal” female levels of testosterone, the dominant “male” hormone, which some competitors say gives her an unfair advantage.
The question of fairness is fundamental to organised sports. It is clearly wrong for athletes to use performance-enhancing substances. These chemicals are unhealthy and undermine the physical and philosophical integrity of competition.
But the question in the case of Semenya is very different: if she has an advantage from a naturally occurring condition — and her body is as it is through no direct action of her own — is barring her from competition or forcing her to reduce her testosterone not comparable to excluding athletes with exceptionally long legs, or those whose muscles show too much ease with the fast-twitch reflex?
How can one determine who is too naturally advantaged to compete, or on what criteria racing categories should be determined?
If such logic held, all athletes would need to be grouped by height, weight, age and hormonal level. In his letter of resignation from the IAAF disciplinary tribunal, South African lawyer Steve Cornelius put his finger on it when he pointed out that the IAAF’s rules, bent on “ostracising” certain individuals, all happen to be applied to women.
Indian sprinter Dutee Chand’s previous success in appealing IAAF rules on testosterone levels that would have barred her from competing, coupled with the strong political support from the South African government, offers hope that the sporting body may again be overruled.
Chand has offered Semenya legal support. We will all be delighted to see Semenya competing uninhibited at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. But are we listening to her posts on social media? Her posts all take the line: “I am who I am, and proud to be who I am!” What if Semenya were not winning gold medals? Would we stand by her in the same way?
Despite South Africa boasting the only Constitution in the world that recognises sexual orientation, every day in this country lesbian women are beaten and raped to “correct” their sexual orientation.
I sit in meetings of the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the United Nations in which homophobia is ubiquitous, and South African government officials choose to remain silent. I hear young women who are fed up with the status quo — with the conspiracy of silence that surrounds sexual orientation, gender identity and expression — and also with the hypocrisy that support for our “golden girl” reeks of.
Prior to her leap into the media frenzy, Semenya was just an 18-year-old girl from Limpopo who liked to run. She chose not to adhere to the socially accepted roles of how women should behave. Semenya did not fit the mould — in fact, she broke it, just as she broke records.
Imagine if, after all this, Semenya not only continues her formidable run to the top but also if all girls from poor rural communities could be who they wanted to be.
Imagine if every girl could follow her dream, take a bow and describe her nation as the wind beneath her sails. Imagine if we had an open mind to what gender means. Imagine if we nailed our colours to the mast and practised the diversity we preach. Only then could we truly claim to be championing our golden girl.
Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive of Gender Links