Musings on Life for the Queerly Inclined

Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

What is “female”? Womanhood, Racism, and the Olympic Games

The sports world has been abuzz recently over the case of Caster Semenya, a South African runner and 2012 Olympic hopeful.  Dubbed by some “the fastest woman in the world,” she’s now under investigation for not actually being a woman.  (Everyone’s bullshit detectors should’ve just perked up.)  These two articles break down the case against her.  Essentially, other runners and Olympic officials have accused her of having androgen levels in the “male range” (whatever that means–nobody seems eager to give a precise definition), which according to their logic, give her an unfair advantage over other female competitors.

Some clarifications and a couple huge issues:

1. Androgens are not just “male sex hormones.”  They’re found in all bodies, regardless of assigned sex.  Androgen levels are generally lower in FAAB bodies than MAAB* ones, but there’s variation from person to person.  Besides, Olympians are exceptional athletes, so what makes anyone think that the standards used for us mere mortals would apply?

2. Sex =/= gender.  We divide sports by sex, not gender, so everybody who’s saying that Semenya’s gender is being scientifically investigated needs to step off.  She says she’s a woman, so we’re going with that.

3. From my friend Leila, the BAMF ultimate frisbee player:

“Hormone levels are more indicative of one’s sex than one’s gender identity…A more feminine-presenting woman could have higher testosterone levels than a more masculine-presenting woman, yet is more likely to be left alone in the sports world since she might not fall prey to the traditional argument that sports turn women into butch lesbians.”

Yep, pretty much.  I don’t see the Olympic officials calling for mass testing of all athletes’ hormones in this particular way.  The International Olympic Committee’s new ruling speaks of “the investigated athlete” and describes the formal procedure of “Request[ing] a Female Hyperandrogenism Investiagtion.”  It seems as though other athletes and IOC medical officials can request the investigation of a specific athlete; otherwise no additional testing will take place.  This means only a few athletes will be singled out in this way.  Alienation, much?

4. Let us not ignore the fact that Semenya is a black South African and that North American/European standards of beauty (which have been pushed all over the world) are Eurocentric.  (That is not my controversial opinion; that is a fact.)   When standards of womanhood and femininity are defined by white women, according to phenotypically white features, women of color are the ones scrutinized for not being “womanly” enough.

5. More from the IOC: “women ruled ineligible to compete may opt to medically lower their androgen levels.”  Great.

Semenya may have high levels of androgens, but for the IOC to single her out for testing, state that she must medically interfere with her hormones if she doesn’t pass said testing, and (at the last minute–the Olympics start at the end of this month) threaten not to let her compete is more than unfair.

* FAAB: female assigned at birth; MAAB: male assigned at birth.  Not taking into account trans* people who may have taken hormones. The inclusion and categorization of trans* athletes is a whole other conversation that needs to be had.

Video

“Somebody’s gotta be the best. So why not me?”

Aaaaaand this is wonderful.  Perfect timing.  (Though I gotta admit it’s ever so slightly jarring to hear a 55 y/o woman’s voice coming outta a 9 y/o girl’s mouth.)

I’m a soccer-star-fairy-princess! Duh.

When I was five years old, I decided I wanted to be a soccer player when I grew up (that is, whenever I wasn’t being a movie star or a fairy princess).  I wasn’t especially good at soccer.  In fact, I barely knew how to play.  That wasn’t the point.  I had just learned that women’s soccer wasn’t taken as seriously as men’s soccer and that, comparatively speaking, not very many people watched it.  My five-year-old logic went like this:

“Surely the only reason people take men’s soccer more seriously is that there aren’t very many women playing soccer and so people don’t know about it.  If there were more women soccer players, it would be a much more popular sport and everyone would support it.  Ergo I should be a soccer player and help make it really popular.  If tons of little girls become soccer players, then everyone will pay attention.”

A+ plan, right?  This was 1995 and Mia Hamm was becoming a household name, after she became the youngest USA woman to win the World Cup in 1991.  A whole generation of girls was being ushered into sports camps.

June 23rd marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX (law requiring gender equity in federally funded educational programs, including sports).  Growing up as a post-Title IX child during the “girl power” 90’s, I never really grasped the significance of this law.  I still don’t have a thorough enough understanding of what it was like to be an aspiring female athlete pre-1972.  My family has never been big on team sports.  I follow figure skating like some people follow football (complete with the stereotypical yelling at the TV and threatening to throw things), but I grew up basically ignoring team sports–men’s and women’s equally–so I wasn’t immersed in the culture that glorified men’s teams and disregarded women’s.

When I was three, I began figure skating; when I was 14, I moved over to dance.  Stereotypes aside, these are definitely girl/woman-dominated activities.  (Side note: if you think figure skating isn’t a sport, you are hereby dismissed.)  My friends who were athletic were skaters and dancers.  Again, no connection with dominant sports culture that prioritizes men.

It wasn’t until college that I had friends who were athletes in the world of team sports.  Going to a historically women’s college, the athletes were almost exclusively women.  (Now I’m that weird kid who thinks rugby is primarily a women’s sport and gets confused when people talk about ruggers being upwards of six feet.  Yeah.  Same goes for crew.  Why do people think of this when they think of rowers?)  I began seeing what it means to center sports on women’s teams and how much of these athletes’ lives and passion would be overlooked in a setting that didn’t value them.

Watching this video, something finally clicked.  In it Laurie Priest, MHC’s Director of Athletics, explains that “at Mount Holyoke, women are treated as first-class citizens, because all the opportunities are for women.  Women are not the sideshow.  They get top billing as the only show in town” (4:57).  Ah ha.

That’s what Title IX gets us–confirmation that women are just as deserving of a top-billed spot and consequently merit all the training, facilities, and support that will get them there.  Next step: getting women’s athletics to be recognized with the same prestige accorded men’s.  Oh and maybe I should stop referring to half-time as “intermission”…

Tag Cloud