A new turn in the Caster Semenya story

Posted on 14 Sep 2009 at 10:22am
Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya

Last week, I blogged here about the situation of South African runner Caster Semenya. The young woman, still in her teens, set records in two mid-distance races, and then some other folks started complaining because she looked so boyish. They in effect questioned her gender, suggesting that she was actually a male competing as a female, and would therefore have an unfair advantage.

That prompted the International Association of Athletics Federation to require Semenya to undergo genetic testing. Now the results of those tests have been leaked to the media, even though the IAAF is commenting. What they found, according to reports in Australian newspapers, is that Semenya is intersexed. The newspapers say Semenya has no ovaries or uterus and internal testes that produce large amounts of testosterone.

Also, apparently, Semenya and her family didn’t know any of this before. Gee, what a wonderful way to find out something so personal about yourself!

According to a report by Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein, experts in the field say that Semenya should be allowed to compete as a woman, and they are concerned that the controversy could leave Semenya with psychological scars. In fact, they say, two years ago a star female track athlete who tested male attempted suicide.

I see this as just one more glaring example of how our society’s fixation with “gender” and “gender roles” can lead to painful, humiliating and dangerous¬† situations for those of us who don’t conform to the “norm.”

Take me, for example. To say I am not “feminine” or “girly” is an understatement. I can’t tell you how many times some convenience store clerk or server in a restaurant looks me in the face and calls me “sir.” And I rarely go to the restroom in a public space like a restaurant or mall because of the looks I get from people who think I am a guy going into the women’s restrooms. It is embarrassing both for me and for those who have looked at me askance, or perhaps even made some comment to me, and then realized their mistake.

But hey, I have lived with it for nearly 49 years now. I am used to it, and it is, really, nothing more than a momentary embarrassment or inconvenience.

But it is so much more for others, like Semenya, who have to endure having some of the most personal, intimate details of their lives splashed in headlines and discussed so publicly. And for those every day people who don’t make headlines, but who have their very safety threatened by people who are so frightened by anyone who is different that they respond with violence.

Think I am exaggerating? Then ask Brandon Teena, or Gwen Araujo, or any of the hundreds of other transgender and otherwise gender-variant people who have paid the price for others’ fear with their own lives.

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