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.

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