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Sensationalizing Semenya

The IAAF’s decision to force Caster Semenya to undergo a ‘gender verification test’ is an example of erroneous spectacle based on binary fixations which feed into the misappropriation of a person’s actual gender identity. This should not be used as an indicator of what a person’s identity is. The Guardian report Caster Semenya wins 800m gold but cannot escape gender controversy illustrates both racism and rigid perceptions of gender:

‘Standing in lane four alongside Britain’s diminutive Jenny Meadows – whose bronze medal was inevitably overshadowed by the hysteria tonight – Semenya’s notably developed frame was further exaggerated.’

The inference is that Caster Semenya’s muscular body type, not being ‘diminutive’, is not female never mind feminine. However the so-called ‘diminutive’ body of Jenny Meadows is equally muscular. The only significant difference is that Ms Meadows is white with long wavy blond hair. They are after all athletes. The suggestion is that Jenny Meadows is female whereas Caster Semenya isn’t. This is outrageous.

The Guardian’s reference to German tennis star Sarah Gronert, who was intersex at birth and who later had surgery, further challenges gender perceptions. Ms Gronert has been subjected to ridicule so much so she almost gave up her tennis career. The question is – does this mean a person who identifies intersex cannot compete in sports irrespective of gender specific indicators. Or will they be forced into choosing based on binary fixations?

The mention of Ms Gronert in this article begs the question: are they saying Ms Semenya is intersexed too and therefore should have surgery? If the discussion is about a woman being masculine [a socially constructed gender marker] then comparing her experience to that of an intersexed woman misses the point. How do you jump from what happened with an intersexed woman to that of Ms Semenya, unless of course you are prodding her for information in order to justify your stances towards her?

The media, vultures as they are, have already managed to reach as far as Ms Semenya’s ancestral village in South Africa, claiming to have spoken to her grandmother and learning that she was teased as a child for being boyish – so was I and millions of other female children – as if this some how justifies the need for gender testing. What type of questioning did the reporter put to the grandmother? This is paramount to transferring childhood playground antics on to the arena of international athletics. The Times adds to the sensationalization when it uses terms such as ‘gossip’ and ‘controversy’ with regards Ms Semenya’s gender without fully understanding it themselves. The report gives the guise of rationality and objectivity but in fact it is anything but.

‘The IAAF’s initial hope was that the South African federation leave Semenya out of their team. That would, of course, have been harsh, but it would have avoided the circus that we witnessed yesterday at the Olympic stadium. She is only 18, so a talent that good would most likely have plenty of opportunities to stake her claim to greatness once the gender verification process had been completed. If, of course, it cleared her.’

 The gender verification test, which has already started, involves being examined by a group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist.It is uncertain when the results will be known.

This is extremely intrusive and raises memories of the objectification of Sara Baartman and the pseudo-scientific invasion into Black women’s bodies which continues after 250 years. The inclusion of a gender ‘expert‘ and a psychologist is tantamount to pathologizing Ms Semenya and all women who do not fit the diminutive stereotype of women. The media no longer play an objective role but rather become the stokers of fire creating sensationalism through vicious innuendo. Meanwhile the audience becomes voyeurs of women’s bodies with regards race and gender – in other words we are all Sara Baartman.

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