What Semenya’s Critics AND Defenders Fear

Reading David Zirin and Sherry Wolf’s piece, Sex-Testing Victim Semenya Stands Tall, originally published by The Nation, and a somewhat different version in The Globe and Mail, it was reading the latter that something quite fundamental, and quite invisible, struck me.

While it is clear what is illuminated here, particularly in the hurtful comments by those Semenya defeated–and part of a long, if not venerable history in women’s sport–ascribing her success to maleness, is a truth not many, for all the commentary, acknowledge.

The history of female athletes of superlative performance has long been one of their adopting feminine gender expression–and emphatically so–not only to offset their physical male characteristics, musculature, lack of breasts, endurance, deep voice, not usually associated with a female body but also to deflect the slur of homosexuality–and the consequence of sex-testing, which indignity Semenya is now undergoing.

This strength of this accusation, not only in sports, does not simply derive from the irrational fear of those who have sex with those whose sex is the same as theirs.

Do we actually see the persons so attacked in intimate moments with those of the same sex?

I suspect I must actually answer this, to me, rhetorical question. This is because the near universal answer to the hate attracted by people like Semenya is that, of course, it is their sexual orientation that is the cause–and no evidence for this is needed.

But, no, we do not see these targets of hate having sex with anyone.

What, then, do we actually see?

We see people who present the physical characteristics of the opposite sex–specifically, male characteristics. And it is these characteristics that, it is assumed, must be the reason for her success. Since it could not possibly be her dedication, her talent or her training.

It is a surprisingly abstract process that jumps from the perception of seen physical characteristics to unseen sexual behaviour–and it is a common one.

It is even more surprising, and to me very curious, that gay and lesbian people, almost universally–and uncritically–promote this complicated intellectualleap.

Clarity of thought is not something usually associated with hate; but I would have hoped it might come from other quarters.

I repeat, what is it that we actually see?

What is it we are actually judging?

We see, and judge, male characteristics in one who presents as female.

We witness as Zirin and Wolf describe, the conclusion of Semenya’s critics that she has illicitly benefited from male characteristics–as if she has taken performance-enhancing drugs/steroids.

As Zirin and Wolf declare:

A country’s wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome or a penis ever could.

Both Semenya’s critics and defenders see sexual orientation as the essence of this issue. Well, not see, I suppose, but feel.

Such a curious consensus and agreement among the most unlikely partners, one might even say allies.

What struck me in all of this–and leads me to dare this statement–is precisely what Zirin and Wolf emphatically point to:

the underlying societal  assumption that it is better to be male.

So fundamental is this assumption it cannot even be seen, so normalized is it in society. It is so invisible that even Semenya’s defenders must conjure up an abstract logic to explain what is happening.

Because they, themselves, share this assumption.

This assumption is the flip side of the attacks, not limited by sexual orientation, political philosophy, religious belief or adherence to feminism, on those who seek to abandon apparent maleness.

This, too, is met with the slur of homosexuality.

While there are certainly those who say these fundamental physical characteristics are gender and gender variant presentation is itself part of  “all things associated” with homosexuality, I cannot accept these assertions.

When, for example, we learn that Semenya wore pants when we was young, this, certainly, is part of gender expression. And we can also say that the response to her physical presence is gendered in some way. But my somewhat attenuated hope is that, in the way we approach freedom, equality and dignity, we would seek clarity in what we assert.

Frankly, all I see in most of this controversy is confusion.

Am I saying Semenya is transsexual? Of course not.

Am I saying she is intersexed? I’m sure after all the sex-testing ordeal she is enduring, we may well learn this.

What I am saying is Semenya’s ordeal demonstrates prejudice that is not limited to those who criticize her performance, and that this points to a very fundamental anxiety shared by people regardless of sexual orientation.

Not only does this have to do with those who change their physical sex characteristics, or simply present opposite-sex physical characteristics, but in particular this anxiety is heightened when it has to do with those who appear to abandon maleness as well as those who seem to inappropriately benefit from maleness.

There is a lesson here I suspect will be lost on most.


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