Musings on Life for the Queerly Inclined

Posts tagged ‘Caster Semenya’

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.

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