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Aug. 20th, 2009 | 02:38 pm

I've been following the hoopla about Semenya, the South African runner who is being asked to submit to a "gender test" (WTF is a gender test anyway? do they show you Barbie or GI Joe dolls and ask which you prefer?) based on her superb performance at her chosen sport. So far, it feels like a clusterfuck of fail.

First, let's look at the misogyny here. The doubt about her sex came because she was performing well? Because, after all, excellence in physical performance is a masculine prerogative. Add to that someone who doesn't present as stereotypically feminine, and we've immediately got doubt about whether or not she's a "real" woman, whatever that means. After all, she's already breaking a societal rule about how women should look and act, and she's succeeding at something to boot. Suspicion time!

And, let's not forget the racism. There decades of issues around black women not being expected to succeed, not being seen as sufficiently feminine, and not being seem as trust-worthy. Can this stuff die already?

And what's the deal with the gender test - I'm assuming they mean sex test, but even this is a bit odd, isn't it? We'd like to think that sex is binary, absolute and neatly packaged in blue or pink wrapping. But the truth is, even in our supposedly perfectly differentiated male and female worlds, we have a ton of different combinations. Plenty of people are born with varying degrees of intersex conditions, and many of them are never aware of it since there's nothing outwardly obvious. And lots of people who fall within "normal" by any barrage of tests may have differing hormone levels that give them advantages or disadvantages in certain areas. But this test seems to imply that we need someone to be determined unambiguously, absolutely, and irrevocably male or female if they are allowed to perform in sports. Either that, or we need to out them as other than binary male/female because they're holding something back, deceiving us all.

It's disturbing to read the comments associated with her story, because there's a nasty undercurrent of blame and judgement even in the sympathic commentary. Let's look at this quote from one of her competitors:

I've heard a lot of speculation, but all I could do was just keep a level head and go about my business," Meadows said. "If none of it's true, I feel very sorry for her."

Why the "if none of this is true" qualifier? If Semenya is found to be a "real" woman, we can feel sorry for her experiencing this public humiliation. But if the tests reveal abnormalities, we can revoke our pity, because our doubts were justified all along.

And what are our doubts? I think it comes down to that old saw about someone with non-conventional gender presentation, expression or identity being seen as deliberate deceptive. After all, blaming an ambiguously gendered person for their very existence is nothing new. Look how many murders of trans women are explained by the killers as happening because the trans woman deceived the perpetrator about her "true" sex. She's suddenly no longer a victim but a predator. Interesting how many of them are women of colour too, because when you combine the gender + colour you get some exponential marginalization happening. Like right now, when we see Semenya is being subjected to a very ugly public scrutiny because she's good at what she does, and we're not okay with that because she challenges our beliefs about gender and race.

I'm so very, very tired of this. I wish the rest of the world was, too.








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Comments {11}

The Cesspit

From: thecesspit
Date: Aug. 20th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
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If we consider gender and/or sex non-binary, isn't the split between 'male' and 'female' in sports a problem in and off itself?

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The Marmot

From: dekucat
Date: Aug. 20th, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC)
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YES! But god forbid you tell the sports world that.

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d_s

From: donnaidh_sidhe
Date: Aug. 20th, 2009 10:49 pm (UTC)
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When I was in Grade 4 I asked my teacher what "gender" meant and he said, "It's a polite word for 'sex.'"

It seems people still think that way.

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Devil's advocate here!

Orin

From: rin_o
Date: Aug. 20th, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC)
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lets look at some of the details that are playing a role here.

She's south african: if you've ever read about what the numbers on rape in south africa are and the attitudes towards it going on are, you know it's a numbingly sexist and oppressive place. there's a good chance this was brought up from opposition from her home nation (where else would they come up with that test?) because they don't want to believe she's female as it endangers their position of what being a woman entials (which seems to be barefoot, gardening, and ready to be pushed down and used by her man or whoever he offers her up to)

She's distinctly masculine: it's one thing to say she doesn't look feminine enough. it another to face what they're really saying here, which is that they think it's a man. and to be honest here she really, truly does have a lot of masculine qualities in not simply in her appearance but in her mannerisms. it's probable that this is the result of being an athlete, but when people want to discredit someone they're not concerned with being nice.

she's very very good: i mean, she's effectively got no real competition other than herself in her current field. because of this, she's going to be hamstrung by the people backing her competitors, who see her as cutting into the effectiveness of their advertisments (like people sponsor anything out of aulterism anymore) since they cannot simply sabotage her without risking negative publicity, their primary means of operation is a smear campaign, and because of the first two points her gender is the most viable and effective target. even if their claims fall apart, the social stigma will last in her homeland for a VERY long time and will possibly cause her to give up the field.

i would honestly be surprised if her management team hadn't prepared for this, in all honestly. competitive sports has been surrounded by a lot of underhanded practices for some time and it's not hard to see this would be the preferred method of attack.

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Poul

From: liberpolly
Date: Aug. 21st, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
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Yeah, looks really ugly.

So what do you propose?
- should all genders compete in the same pool? Then it seems biological women will almost always lose.
- should anyone identifying as female to be allowed to compete in women only events? Then how do you prevent fraud?

I am honestly at loss.
I personallywould ban all professional sports, but that's another story...

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The Marmot

From: dekucat
Date: Aug. 21st, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
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I don't really understand why we have competitive sports. I think they've turned into a huge, dysfunctional pressure cooker that steal people's lives. So I guess I don't particularly care if we have fraud or not - I'd rather have the possibility of fraud than the possibility of ostracization. Maybe that would make people less obsessed with winning to the point that they destroy their bodies with drugs, eating disorders and repetitive-strain injuries.

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Poul

From: liberpolly
Date: Aug. 21st, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
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i agree, but we are not the target audience. it's a huge money making worldwide bureaucracy, and nobody has any say over them. if they decide that women do not belong to ski jumping, women will be kept away from the rump.

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Orin

From: rin_o
Date: Aug. 21st, 2009 11:53 pm (UTC)
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it's ego projection. look at the the fans during a game-those wins rightfully belong to Them for supporting "their" team all this time. it's a way to get that rush of victory over someone else without all that difficult training and competing, and they want it. so the machine keeps pumping out pointless rivalries and meaningless conflict, leading people into another jiha- oh, wait, got my sports and religion rants mixed up.....

yeah, these things simply feed the sense of entitlement in all those people that haven't met their own unfocused life goals for accomplishment, pushing athletes as hard and as fast as they can to provide a big enough show to make these people pump their money in.

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I Got The Devil In Me, Girl

From: butterflysneeze
Date: Aug. 21st, 2009 02:05 pm (UTC)
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What's the alternative?

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The Marmot

From: dekucat
Date: Aug. 21st, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC)
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Not to subject her to testing seems a good start. Then again, I'm anti competitive professional sports, so I'll admit that I see the entire framework she's operating in as fucked beyond redemption.

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I Got The Devil In Me, Girl

From: butterflysneeze
Date: Aug. 22nd, 2009 11:35 am (UTC)
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So...if we accept that she's voluntarily taking place in competitive sport and if we accept that, as a condition of that sport-playing, the competition is bifurcated into male and female divisions, it seems fair that there is some sort of litmus test to determine which division a contestant should be in.

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