The Curious Case of Caster Semenya

In April of this year, I attended a feminist conference in Kathmandu, Nepal. There must have been 500 delegates! 500 people, 500 feminists from all over the globe. To write about how exciting this was would be a really long exercise (for both me and the reader) and slightly futile. There may not exist the appropriate number of words in the English language to express the sheer joy and gratitude one feels when convening and engaging with people who ‘just get it’.

There was a wide range of topics covered, from gender-based violence to feminist philanthropy, but by far my favourite session was one on women and sports. The feminist and women’s movement do a wide range of work on a wide range of topics but women and sports is not one that comes up very often. I was both intrigued and engaged.

The session began with a video of Caster Semenya. If you have been anywhere near the internet in the last couple of weeks you would have seen Caster’s story. Caster Semenya is a South African athlete, a gold medalist (she’s won 30 or so gold medals in a row!!). Caster is also a woman. A Black woman. A Black lesbian woman.

For the last 10 years, Caster has been embroiled in, what can easily be called a fight, with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). After questions about her sex and gender were raised by white female athletes, Caster was submitted to a number of tests that revealed that she has what is called hyperandrogenism.  Basically, she produces more testosterone than the ‘average woman’ and according to the IAAF this has given her an unfair advantage. In the last few weeks, the IAAF has made it protocol that any female athlete diagnosed with hyperandrogenism has to take medication to lower her testosterone levels – to even the playing field they say.

At the feminist conference, I attended I also met a South African activist and academic, let’s call her Mbali. At a level of presentation, she looks ‘female’. In these spaces of ‘tribe’, we tend to share a lot about ourselves because we feel safe. This fellow conference goer shared with me and has shared publicly, that she is intersex. Mbali’s story really got me thinking about Caster’s story. Had Mbali been a silver medalist, presenting as she does, it’s very likely that she would never have been required to undergo tests because she ‘passes’- she looks ‘acceptably’ female. But if we take the IAAF’s lead on biology as defining women – Mbali is, in their eyes, not a woman. And Caster, who produces more testosterone than Mbali (who had her internal testicles removed at infancy and is thus on hormone replacement therapy due to early onset menopause) but is typically female in terms of her chromosomes (XX) is not women enough. Do you see the ginormous red flags here?

Society has slowly but surely come to the realisation that gender is a social construct. We acknowledge that people born with certain genitalia are socialised in very specific ways. We are beginning to see that boys are not ‘naturally’ into blue, trucks, ninjas and boobs. This behavior is taught. What Caster’s case highlights is that it is not only gender that is socially constructed, sex clearly is too. How else do we explain the ‘curious’ cases of Mbali and Caster, especially when compared to one another? Caster – masculine presenting, but XX chromosome having is not enough of a woman to run against other women. Mbali, feminine presenting, but XY chromosome having makes the cut? It becomes very clear that just likes pink is not naturally a colour for girls, neither is testosterone or even XY chromosomes a biological indicator of a boy.

But it is not only the issues of the crumbling, socially contracted and oppressive categories of sex and gender that come to the fore here. We have to also recognise that had Caster been a white woman, she probably would not have been subjected to these tests. In fact, if you make Google your friend and do some research on female athletes over the decades you will see that there have been a number of white European athletes, women, who have participated and excelled in their chosen fields unbothered by the IAAF.

According to the world, Black women are not supposed to be exceptional – and if they are there is clearly something wrong or amiss. We see this every time Serena Williams gets onto the tennis court as well. The intersections of race, class and gender make it so that our fighting chance is incredibly small. If we want to talk about an uneven playing field can we talk about Black athletes who come into their chosen sports yards behind their white counterparts? Their white counterparts who have been trained by the best coaches since the age of 3, who have been tutored, who have had access to the right diet –  who do not have to martyr themselves to simply do what they love to do, what they are good at! Can we not let a black girl just…live…her…life?

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