Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Redeeming Caster Semenya

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I saw the women's 800 meters in Berlin. This young thing was facing the cameras before the race started, pretending to brush a few specks of dust off her shoulders because that's what the other runners were to her, just dust she was gonna leave behind. She wasn't in the lead at first, but pretty soon she broke out and that was the end of it.

Afterwards, the French announcer said, there were two races, Caster Semenya's and the one everybody else was in. She didn't crack a smile. Just brushed off her shoulders again, that young woman from South Africa. Somebody handed her a flag and told her to take a victory lap. She did it sternly. A dyke, I figured. Stone butch and eighteen, with a lot to prove. More than I knew at the time.

It turns out she was waiting for the results of gender testing after complaints from some of the other runners and coaches about her sudden improvement, big muscles, deep voice when she came out of nowhere to win the African Junior Championship.

Plenty of writers blame the complaints on racism and misogyny. And it is always tough for black female athletes. Blogger Monica Roberts wasn't the only one to comment, "I know from my time on planet Earth, if an African descended female athlete excels in spectacular fashion, we get accused of cheating or have 'that's a man' shade hurled at us."

Like many others, she went on to talk about the Williams sisters whose complete dominance of the women's tennis circuit has brought on a lot of the same complaints. "They're too big, too strong. They're not real women." She also reminded us that Olympic champion Maria Mutola of Mozambique faced the same kind of accusations despite passing test after test.

Masculine women, and dykes, of course, get that nonsense all the time, no matter what their race. Martina Navratilova was in the hot seat for her muscley arms and total control of women's tennis a generation before the Williams sisters. For the rest of us, our girlness started getting called into question when we were little and beat boys in games.

All that makes a black, butch woman with wings on her feet fair game. And the medical juries are in. At least the information was leaked. Caster Semenya wasn't doping. But she is a "hermaphrodite" as they wrote in some headlines. Intersexed from those that wanted to be polite. No external male organs but reportedly testes hidden up in there.

I can't imagine what she thought, finding out in the morning paper, and looking down at a body that's suddenly foreign. Worrying everybody thinks she's a freak. Wondering if they'll let her compete again. If she can stand to.

The only good that's come out of the mess is that it gave birth to a couple of interesting articles about biological complexity explaining there are far more gender variations than we acknowledge both on the hormonal, biological and genetic levels. Hell, X's and Y's are scattered around like party favors.

Unfortunately, few of the articles went so far as to demand Semenya be accepted as an athlete, no question, by clarifying what matters most to her, that in terms of performance, most intersexed females with testes don't get enough of a handy hormonal spike to get any kind of advantage.

In fact, women with "normal" sex organs can produce unusually high levels of testosterone. What are we going to do about them? The only fair thing would be to test all the "female" athletes and establish one set of rules for everyone. Maybe even enforce them by administering hormones until they're all at exactly the same levels. Perhaps the tall ones should be shortened and the short ones stretched.

According to Peggy Orenstine, the Olympic Games quit gender-verifying female athletes in 1999 because it was proven the few women with atypical sex development didn't actually get a competitive edge. Worse, "it served only to humiliate them." Given that, it's hard to understand why the International Association of Athletics Federations continues to go after Caster Semenya.

The only challenge to Caster should be the field of runners. Unfortunately, besides the IAAF, there's now the emotional obstacle of stepping back into a stadium, and competing in front of a crowd when plenty of them are thinking she's a freak of nature, and not just because she blew away the world champion by almost two and a half seconds.

After the news broke, she withdrew from her next race and apparently began trauma counseling. I only hope it's coming from somebody kind and open-minded who won't stuff her into dresses, or try to extract her difference with a knife. I can't wait to see her run again. That beautiful burst of speed and defiance. Leaving all the other girls in the dust.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

American Politics: Two Left Feet

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Some people have two left feet. America doesn't even have one, not a toenail. My latest theory is that the impotence of our left can be judged in inverse proportion to the amount of Che tee shirts worn by its proponents. And the decibel level of their response to political outrages.

When the Democrats recently forced out Van Jones as Obama's green jobs Tzar to quell Republican fury, the most I heard were squeaks from the left. Only whispers were offered in protest when Republican administrations tolerated, actually applauded conservatives who denied global warming as frequently as the Holocaust, posited a secret global government, and supported "Middle Eastern policies meant to hasten the second coming" as Michelle Goldberg notes in the American Prospect.

Why the relative silence? Especially when those revolutionary Che tee-shirts are in ample supply in the U.S.?

Because they don't indicate anything except failure, of good sense, and the imagination. What Republican would wear an image of Bush on the destroyer declaring victory in Iraq shortly before the place exploded, taking the entire region, and the American economy, more or less along for the ride? We won, we won. Kaboom. No. You wash your hands of the triumphalist image and move on.

The left, however, continues to embrace Che, who along with his bosom buddy Fidel, gave birth to an equal, if more localized, disaster. Cubans in that enormously fertile island are going hungry, and it's not all the fault of the embargo. Police profiling of black folks, even women, is as bad as in New Jersey. The lauded Cuban health care system is largely reserved for the party faithful. School kids don't have school uniforms, books. Or toilet paper. "Revolutionary" forces protect the working class by forbidding union organizing. Queers are arrested if they try to do anything outside the sphere of their protectrice Mariela Castro who defends us in a creepy, medicalized way as homossssssssexuals and transssssexuals that have to be tolerated because they were born that way.

Altogether, Cuba has become what Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez calls "a society marked by the criminalization of opinions, where even the nuts and children don't say what they think, just the drunks." Which are then arrested. After a clip was posted on YouTube of a hammered Juan Carlos Gonzalez Marcos, "Panfilo" interrupting a video interview to announce that "what Cubans really needed was grub. We're horribly hungry," the middle-aged Afro-Cuban man got two years in jail.

And despite his early, and heroic departure, Che can't be absolved for how Cuba evolved. If I remember correctly, he was the architect of the "re-education" camps for prostitutes that went on to imprison queers, other social degenerates and enemies of the revolution that now include bloggers in addition to voluble drunks.

If that's the truth, why oh why oh why do so many in the American left cling to the myth of Che as hero, using Cuba as a handy hook on which to hang all our hopes and dreams of beauty, revolution, life under a perpetually shining sun?

Ignorant? Or just lazy? For a revolution all you need is a beret, a boat called Granma, a bunch of guys with guns, pure hearts, and a couple of weeks of ripe historical conditions. Change in a democracy, especially a mediocre one, takes years of wallowing in political filth, compromise, back room deals, insults, persistence, and of course buckets of dough.

It's more entertaining, cleaner to just go out on the streets to protest for women's and queer rights. Against war and against racism. To collect money for Green Peace and animal sanctuaries. With their insistence on keeping their hands spotless, I sometimes think the left have far more invested in our Puritan heritage than the religious right.

As a result we're not even in the game. Unlike most other democracies, we have no viable Green Party or other group of the left that could manage to get more than one or two representatives in the House. We have only the centrist and center-right Democrats up against the right-wing and extreme right Republicans.

Without the counterbalance of a political left, the extreme right easily paralyzes the Republicans, and pulls the center farther and farther towards their particular brand of schizophrenic American politics which manages to be both authoritarian and isolationist, paranoid, theocratic, and popular in an elitist (racist, misogynist, homophobic) kind of way.

The only solution is to artificially create a left. Where it could come from though, is anybody's guess. A cabbage patch? Storks? Churches have been the breeding ground of the rising extremists on the right. The left has nothing similar. Social justice movements in 2009 are too fragmented and demobilized to hatch a movement, or even the left wing of a baby chick.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Two Cents on Health Care

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

When I drop in on the American health care debate my only response is "Freaks!" Seriously. Universal health care = death panels? Communism? Armageddon? On the other hand, who on earth believes access and regulation will fix it all?

I'm an unexpected skeptic. I'm living in France where the value of universal coverage is self-evident. Despite their complaints about the high cost of care, middle-class French people pay very little, poor people pay nothing, and even outsiders like me benefit from government regulation, subsidies, and a system among the best in the world.

To give you an idea of what it means in financial terms, last year I had an ovarian cyst that involved a lot of doctor visits and eventually surgery. I paid full price for everything before my insurance returned the bulk of it. Sixty euros ($86) covered one visit to a private gynecologist, 28 euros for a visit to a public clinic. A sonogram was eighty euros. An MRI ran 454 euros. Surgery with three whole nights in the hospital was 4450 euros ($6367) including hospital bed, surgeons' fees, anesthesiologist, medication, bed pan, coffee and croissants. And I waited less than a month for this non-emergency surgery to be scheduled.

The most important thing, though, is that at every stage the care was competent and professional. Hell, it was the best I've ever had. Unsurprisingly, the World Health Organization as well as the Commonwealth Fund rank France, along with Switzerland, Britain, Canada, and Japan, as having the best health care system in the world, not just in access, but in having the best outcomes in all age categories for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and rates of other chronic diseases.

For me the question is, even if the flying pig of universal health coverage manages to get past the increasingly powerful lobbyists and their congressional lackeys to give every American insurance, can the United States actually transform its medical culture enough to make universal health care work? Access aside, America's existing health care system stinks. You can pay a lot, or pay a little, you're still in a country rated a pathetic 37th on results.

My theory is that the key to the success of French medical care is not just access, but access to one standard of care for everyone, not just in terms of how medical recommendations are made, but in terms of class.

I'd heard about it from one of my old neighbors, a medical social worker, who told me how he might spend a morning in a total slum with a recent hospital discharge, and the afternoon visiting a patient whose possible inheritors were squabbling in an adjoining room.

I got a chance to watch it myself last year. In the waiting room at the public hospital, there'd be a student, a middle-class matron, an au pair. The secretaries terrified rich and poor alike with the same French bureaucratic chill. The doctors greeted everyone with the same face of professional interest, the same polite handshake.

Compare that mix of patients and the imposition of the same social conventions to New York, where there's clearly a two-tier system of health. The poor are treated by specialists in the poor, who rarely leave their medical ghettoes to treat the rich. In public clinics, nurses snicker at patients to their faces, make fun of accents even if they have one themselves. Doctors, usually paid less than their peers in private practice, assume that the financial poverty includes moral and intellectual lack, too, and treat you accordingly.

Which is not to say they don't prescribe the expensive procedures and tests. The problem is the staff just don't take the same care with some poor schmuck as they would with the rich.

There was the time I was on Medicaid and having intestinal problems. They recommended a colonoscopy and I was right in the middle when the anesthesia wore off. They couldn't give me more because my blood pressure dropped, which they hadn't prepared for though apparently it's a common side-effect, and despite the fact I was begging them to stop, these medical professionals just went straight on like I wasn't there begging them to please, oh my god, please stop.

No, access isn't everything. I could tell you a dozen stories like that. Only a few of them mine. Should I be happy more people get access to that?

I think this two-tier system is also bad for the middle-class or rich. Aware of the differences in pocket books, the potential for patient lawsuits as much as the payoffs in lucrative tests and prescriptions, I doubt doctors give them the objective, thoughtful care they should. They don't refuse to offer useless treatments, don't take chances when they ought to.

Reform? Hell. Better burn down the house.