This is an outpouring of love for Caster Semenya. Wrong is not her name. What is wrong is the way she has been treated in global media. As three queer women, we have struggled with our own relationship to the feminine as it has been constructed in mainstream society. As a black woman set adrift in a sea of whiteness, it was hard to see myself as beautiful. My curves and skin color made me unattractive in my world. As a white, feminine woman who is also intersex, I have struggled hard to come to peace with my body. Doctors and the world around me have told me I am defective or have denied my existence entirely. As a disabled Korean adoptee, I grew up as an outsider, rarely seeing people who moved like me or reflected me in my community or in the media. I was constantly told that my body was something that needed to be "fixed;" that it was "wrong;" and that it, that I, was "undesirable." We engage with each other as comrades, three queer women uniquely shaped by our lived identities and experiences. We were the odd ones out, queered by our bodies, but later we claimed our queerness with fierce intention and pride. Now we choose our difference, embrace what sets us a part from a constrictive mainstream. It is for these reasons that we feel a deep kinship with Caster Semneya. Her story unfolded internationally without her consent and knowledge. We write to right wrongs done to someone whose only crime was daring to be all that she is.
My quirky black girl heart is breaking for Caster Semenya, the South African runner who has lived her life as an athletic woman until the IAAF decided she was just too good to be all female and did some probing to find the “truth." Now she’s in hiding and on suicide watch, her genitalia, sexual organs and hormone levels the subject of a global discussion and dissection before she's had a chance to make sense of it all. Did I mention she’s 18? Unfortunately, this is nothing new in the world of sports, women’s lives destroyed because their remarkable performances caste doubt on their femininity. "Real" women aren't that fast, that strong, that masculine.
Black women have long been portrayed as masculine and inappropriately feminine in popular media with athletes particularly targeted for their muscles and physical prowess. Earlier this year Sarah Gronert, a white tennis player, was being harassed by other coaches and players because she was believed to be intersex. Calls were made for her to be removed from competition but no such action occurred. "There is no girl who can hit serves like that, not even Venus Williams," said the coach of one of her rivals. Black women are (barely) women but Gronert, though described as "beautiful" in more than one article, surpasses the limit. Too much, Too good. Note: Gronert is ranked No. 306 in the world.
And everyone (I guess now including me) feels the need to add their two cents to the fray. An article I read wanted to claim Semenya in the realm of queer and trans identity and even went so far as to say that the comparison made by the South African Government between Semenya and Sarah Baartman was simply a nationalistic one. A more apropos comparison, the author opined, would be Billy Tipton, a female born singer who lived his life as a man until he was discovered in death. Billy was "outed" by medics who were attempting to save his life which is not at all like Semenya, an 18 year old girl who was outed not as trans but as a "hermaphrodite" to the whole world. An intersectional lens is needed. Pieces of Semenya's story need not be parsed out for the advancement of singular movements.
The feigned concern for Semenya on behalf of the IAAF is perhaps the most disturbing. After performing tests, lying about what they were for and then leaking the results, they revealed that they hadn't yet gotten in touch with her. They aren't ready to discuss the findings though they were published in papers around the world. This is after an initial professed need for urgency because there are "risks" associate with her "condition." The audacity to test Semenya after accepting the South African certification for her to compete is indicative of the racist and imperialist ideology of the organization. The IAAF had to check on the SA sports authorities as if they were incapable of making that determination. The paternalism of the IAAF's concern must be pointed out as they claimed to be acting in Semenya's best interest.
And doesn't all of this call professional sports practices into question? Why do we persist in validating a two sex binary and a gender dichotomy when we are repeatedly reminded that these divisions are limiting and not reflective of natural human diversity? What does it mean that the word "hermaphrodite" can be used in news articles as a legitimate term in 2009?! How is it possible within the context of the supposed proliferation of women's studies that more people aren't aware that the sex binary does not accurately reflect the diversity of human bodies? How does a common human variation become a freakish spectacle for the world to consume, again and again?
Our refusal to accept the biological reality of more than two sexes and more than two genders has driven someone to (possibly) contemplate ending their own life. Why won't we let Caster Semenya be great? It's time to look within ourselves and see how our own beliefs and behaviors support the myth of a two gender, two sex world. I feel like if I had been doing my job or my discipline had, this wouldn't have happened. That people around the world would understand that it is not as simple as male and female, not as easy as man and woman.
I want to call on communities not to repeat the IAAF's mistreatment of Semenya by partitioning her story and using her to make claims for your particular group. Black people have called out the racism and some of the sexism that is swirling in the press but still use offensive ableist language that is indicative of a certain distancing from female masculinity and a subtle homophobia. More than one group has taken up her story as a new Raison d'être for the cause of gender and sexuality. The way she has been treated in the media and by the IAAF is racist, sexist, queerphobic, ableist, imperialistic, all at the same time. May this incident be the impetus to ensure that this never happens again and a rallying cry for intersectionality in our movements so that everyone acts with the understanding that their humanity is linked with someone else's.
When news first leaked allegedly confirming that Caster Semenya is intersex, my stomach dropped. I began to brace myself for the onslaught of offensive ignorant media and blog coverage and it didn’t take long to appear. In fact, within the hour that the story broke, I received an email from a CBS producer calling Semenya a "hermaphrodite" and requesting my presence on their live morning news show as I "have the same condition." The word “hermaphrodite” (which is inaccurate, misleading, and offensive) was used in most of the articles I have read and immediately the inappropriate speculation about Semenya’s body, hormones, and chromosomes began.
Intersex is a set of medical diagnoses that feature “congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system.” Intersex people are born with chromosomes, external genitalia, and/or internal reproductive systems that are not considered “standard” for either male (penis, testes, XY chromosomes) or female (ovaries, vagina, uterus, XX chromosomes). Intersex is a fairly common occurrence. It is estimated that 1 in 2000 babies are born obviously intersex. That number does not include the large number of people who are diagnosed as intersex later in life (myself, and perhaps Semenya included.) Intersex people's bodies have historically been, and continue to be, viewed as "social emergencies" by doctors. When discovered at birth in most Western countries, unnecessary cosmetic surgery is performed on the majority of intersex babies to force them to conform to either male or female aesthetic binary standards. These surgeries often require multiple follow-up repair surgeries and are ridden with complications. Obviously, an infant can not consent to having surgery, and adult intersex people are often haunted by a lifetime of these unnecessary procedures that rob them of their sexual sensations and have long term affects on their ability to feel present and safe in their bodies.
When an intersex diagnosis is made later in life, surgery is often pushed as a necessary and expected solution. The idea of a person whose body does not fit the narrow standard for male or female is unthinkable and unacceptable under the current medical and social model.
Multiple public genital examinations are standard for most intersex people in doctor's offices and medical schools. Pictures of naked intersex children and adults fill medical text books and journals with a black bar across the individual's face in a weak attempt to preserve their anonymity. Many intersex people struggle with severe post traumatic stress from these public genital displays, multiple surgeries, and genital exams. When a person is either open about being intersex or is outed, as appears to be Semenya's case, our bodies are again put on a type of public display. People seem to think they have the right to see pictures of our bodies, ask intimate details about our genitals, how we have sex, etc. People feel they have the right to have speculative conversations about intersex people's bodies in a way few other groups ever experience. It is no one's business what Semenya's genitals looks like, what her gonadal tissue consists of, what her chromosomal make-up is, or how much testosterone her body produces. My website, which features my writing and information on intersex, has always gotten the majority of hits via people searching for pictures of intersex people's genitals. I wrote a blog some time back addressing the problems with this "curiosity." Before the Semenya's story broke, I got between 40 and 50 hits a day. Since then, my hits spiked to over 500 a day and haven't dropped much lower since. With very few exceptions nearly every single search sending people to my site was for pictures of intersex people's bodies and specifically, their genitals. The fact that people think they have a right to access the bodies of Semenya and other intersex people is the direct result of many years of historic exploitation and medical abuse of intersex people.
Intersex people exist and have existed for as long as humans have. Intersex is a natural variation in sex. Despite what most of us are taught, sex is not a binary (and neither is gender!) Binary sex segregation has always caused problems for many of us who do not easily fit into one of two boxes. Semenya is as much a woman as any non-intersex woman is. One's gender identity isn't contingent on what is in their pants or what their chromosomal make-up is. The IAAF has no right to penalize anyone for being intersex. The fact that it is still acceptable to put individuals through these types of "gender" tests, is disgusting. Further, the fact that they did not go to great lengths to preserve her safety and privacy during this matter is absolutely sickening and unforgivable.
I was 15 when I found out that I had been born with an intersex body. I was initially misdiagnosed, given an unnecessary and painful surgery, underwent multiple genital exams with multiple doctors and other medical staff and students, and was told that my body was unacceptable, freakish, and in immediate need of correction. This experience was incredibly traumatic and shaming for me. This was NOT due to being born with a body that doesn’t fit what is deemed “normal” for a girl or a woman, but was a result of being told that my body was “wrong” and needed to be fixed. It was due to doctors medicalizing this variance in my body and treating it as if it were a true medical emergency. On the larger scale, my shame was a result of living in a world that refuses to accept the fact that sex is a social construction that exists (and always has existed) outside of the binary. I had lived the 15 previous years perfectly happy in my body. Fortunately for me, I discovered the intersex movement 3 years post-diagnosis and was able to finally work through the shame and embarrassment I had felt. I was able to get angry at the system that told me I was a freak, a mutation, an accident, defective, and unacceptable. Through this, I began to learn to accept and love my body again. I was lucky enough to escape surgery and have learned to not only love the body I was born with, but feel pride in it.
With all of the attention Semenya's story has received, one can't ignore the impact of race and white supremacy on how the situation has been handled not only by the IAAF, but by the international media, and individuals discussing it around the world. White and western ideas of gender most certainly had an impact on the way Semenya has been treated and the reasons her sex was called into question in the first place. Gender standards of how a man or a woman should look and act are based on white/western standards of beauty and gender roles. Women of color who deviate from white/western ideals of how women should look and act often have their gender and femininity called into question. Further, white supremacy has historically created a sense of entitlement in white people to the bodies of people of color. White people feel entitled to gawk at, interrogate, and investigate the bodies of black people. Not surprisingly, many comparisons have been made between Caster and South African slave Saartjie Baartman who was known as the Hottentot Venus in the early 1800s. Baartman's body was literally paraded around Britain during her life and even after her death for the eyes of white Europeans.
My heart goes out to Semenya. I can't imagine how it would feel to find out that you are intersex from reports that were leaked into the international media. I have struggled heavily over the past week with whether it is even appropriate for activists like me to discuss the situation at all. For one, it is still speculation (Semenya's intersex status has not been confirmed at this point); two, if it is to be discussed, Semenya is the only person who has a right to disclose such information; and three, when I was diagnosed, I didn't want to discuss it with my closest friends and family, let alone with strangers (no matter how well intentioned). That said, it *has* been leaked and people are discussing it, and doing so in inaccurate, hurtful, and dehumanizing ways. I think it is especially important to have intersex voices speaking out in support of Semenya and against the oppressive systems that try to force intersex people into boxes and binaries that simply do not fit and never will, no matter how much shaming and surgery occurs. I hate that this successful and talented young woman has been thrust into the spotlight essentially erasing the reason we all know her name in the first place (she is a talented athlete, remember?) I hate that despite the work of the intersex movement, the majority of the world still doesn't get it. Intersex people are your friends, neighbors, and co-workers. We have feelings, hobbies, and talents. We are not theoretical, sensational, or mythical. The stuff you say and write affects real people! I can only hope that Semenya has the support she needs to take care of herself and get through this. I hope that she can rely on the strength that is apparent in her quote to You Magazine "I see it all as a joke, it doesn't upset me," she says. "God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I'm proud of myself."
First, a breath. For this moment, this historical moment, this moment of existence, as precious and fleeting as all moments are. For hope, even at the edge of despair. For love. For loving ourselves and each other, fiercely, even when the world tells us not to.
How do I write out my thoughts about what is happening to Caster Semenya, an 18 year old gold medal winning South African athlete who was recently out-ed to the world as intersex by the IAAF? How do I write about my rage, my pain and my fears in a way that makes sense? How do I write something that can convey how dehumanizing, violating, disturbing, offensive and heart-breakingly saddening it all is? How do we talk about trauma, as we race to try and understand all the different things that are happening simultaneously and feeding off one another? How do we acknowledge that there is a human being at the center of all of this, whose life’s work is on the line?
As someone whose body has been and is still seen as public property, to be commented on by strangers giving unsolicited advice or asking intrusive questions, to be starred at and made fun of, I fight daily to claim my body. Growing up as a disabled child, I went from doctors to brace makers from surgery to surgery to physical therapy to doctors. I ached for people who looked like me, people who moved like me; people who could tell me that my body was beautiful the way it was and no surgery would ever make me able-bodied, just as sure as no surgery would ever make me white. The idea of trying to make a brace that went from my heel to my hip that could be "hidden" beneath my clothes "so boys wouldn't detect it," was at once an attempt to make me more desirable by making me seem less disabled and an assumption about who should desire me and who I should desire. It wouldn't make me more of a girl or a woman, something I never really completely understood or felt like. Women were the people who wore high heels, ran, were desired by and desired men; they got married and had kids and I never saw anyone who moved like me who was married or had kids on TV.
I see what is happening to Caster Semenya and so much of it is rooted in how we think about bodies and what gets considered to be a "normal" body. So much of it it rooted in ableism, a system that oppresses disabled people, privileges non-disabled people and maintains able-bodied supremacy. Ableism tells us how bodies should function, move, smell, sound, and look; including male and female bodies, black, brown and white bodies, queer bodies--all bodies.
What happens to Caster Semenya is connected to and impacts all women of color. After all, women of color’s genders (and bodies) are always under surveillance. Caster Semenya is not the first and she will not be the last. Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian athlete, also lost her 2006 Asian Games silver medal for failing a gender test and also found out the results of her gender test from newspaper and television reports. The twisting and wringing of individual women of color’s gender (in the U.S. and globally) reinforces the violent racist gender stereotypes about all women of color and leaves us all hung out to dry.
As disability justice activists, we must connect how ableism gets leveraged in service of heteronormativity, in service of white supremacy, in service of misogyny. Ableism gets used all the time to divide us and we must fight it at every turn. How do we begin to understand that it was Caster’s extraordinary able-bodied and gender-non-conforming abilities that threatened ableist notions of gendered bodies and propelled the exposure of her gender through the use of a medical “gender test” to expose her sex. This is not just about defining what a “woman” is, it is also about defining what a “normal body” is and what “able-bodied” is and what it is not; it is about defining what “intersex” is and what it’s not.
We must understand how the medical industrial complex and science are being used to profit off of our bodies and medicalize our genders, our abilities, and render, in this case, an 18 year old intersex South African black woman a spectacle for the world to stare at, gawk at, and examine—at her expense. We must see how this spectacle is connected to the spectacle made of disabled bodies everyday behind closed doors, in sterile white rooms, under florescent lights, in homes, at family dinners, birthday parties, a trip to the mall, to the park, down the street.
As reproductive justice activists, we must challenge the notion that women are only as valuable as our wombs and the children we are expected to produce. We must challenge definitions of "woman" and "reproduction" that exclude intersex people and work to create a movement and framework that integrates an intersex analysis in to our work.
Where are the radical women of color feminists, building homes with fierce intersex poets, forging alliances with trans and gender queer immigrant gardeners, eating dinner with queer disabled dancers, making music with southern artists? Where are our voices, bringing an intersectional, multi-issue, multi-lived politic and analysis to all of this—amidst the white media frenzy, gender binary enforcers, medical experts, athletic officials and government heads? We need more than just a gender analysis, or a nationalist racial analysis. These are opportunities to speak across the lines and tiny definitions of ourselves that keep us self-righteous, isolated and apart.
Our voices are crucial because people who reflect Caster Semenya and reflect us are listening and learning what it means to have extraordinary bodies.
To close, we want to invite everyone reading to look within themselves and ask yourself how do you know what gender you are? How do you know what sex you are? How does your race, nationality, ability, class, etc. impact how you experience your gender and your body? What are the messages you receive about your body and how it should be? Where or who did those messages come from? Ask these questions of your friends and family. Read. Learn. Open yourself up to a discussion you may not have had before this moment. Stop saying hermaphrodite! Everything in society that we think of as static is something we created and we don't have to support ideologies that aren't useful to us. We can create a world where all bodies, where all people, are celebrated, loved, and cherished.