Words like racism, imperialism and war have been bandied about in the saga surrounding the sex of South African 800m runner Caster Semenya. “Mess” and “tragedy” spring to mind too, but gender discrimination is the real elephant in the room.
Caster Semenya, the South African teenager and 800m gold medal winner at the World Championships in Berlin, has sadly had the most intimate details of her body discussed around the world and argued over by the Athletics Association of South Africa (ASA) and the IAAF. The very public spat between the ASA and the IAAF took a new turn this week when ASA president Leonard Chuene admitted that he had lied about Semenya’s gender testing prior to her race, tests which prompted team doctor Harold Adams to advise that she be withdrawn. An inquiry will decide whether the ASA's quest for a gold medal took precedence over the well-being of the athlete. For its part, the IAAF was slow to quash alleged “leaks” in the Australian press of official tests results that Semenya was a hermaphrodite. So far, so messy, but the polarisation of the debate leaves Semenya in an impossible position: not feminine enough to be a woman, or stuck in the undefined space that exists between men and women.
A South African magazine recently gave her a makeover, complete with hair extensions and make-up. Well-meaning though it may be, it shouldn’t matter what Semenya looks like. She should be accepted as a woman with her slim hips, muscular build and square jaw, without conditions. On the other hand, if she is a hermaphrodite, then this should be accepted. Instead, the weight of a nation’s pride could turn into a burden of disappointment. Her homecoming was greeted both with rapture at her gold medal win and a passionate defence of her womanhood. In the rush to “defend her honour” her champions did her a disservice, using inflammatory language to decry any questions over her sexuality and attempting to brush the issue aside. Chuene, for example, said: “We are not going to let Europeans describe and define our children.” Statements like this muddy the waters and ratchet up the pressure on Semenya before the results are even out.
She is damned if she is a woman and damned if she isn’t. The blame for this goes far beyond the ASA and the IAAF, to society’s binary view of sexuality. If we continue to simply define people as male and female we ignore the large numbers of people who have characteristics of both, or who are born one way but feel another. Caster Semenya and her family will have to come to terms with test results that may turn her identity upside down. Born and raised a woman, she may learn that her biological makeup is more complex than most, and she may never be able to have children, for example.
South Africa has some of the most progressive gender equality legislation in the world. The Judicial Matters Amendment Act of 2005 gives intersex people protection from discrimination under the law, at least in theory. Whatever the results of the tests on Caster Semenya, hopefully the South African people will welcome her into their hearts as warmly as they did on her triumphant return from Berlin.