Brynn Craffey

The Gender Police Strike Again

Filed By Brynn Craffey | August 23, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: feminism, gender, South Africa, sports, transsexual

A South African runner, Caster Semenya, 18, is being forced to prove that she is, indeed, a young woman and not "a man," as her detractors allege.

Semenya, whose athletic performance recently improved greatly and who, it seems, was a tomboy as she grew up in an impoverished rural village, enduring taunts and other discrimination as she transgressed what the Guardian newspaper describes as "the rigid gender roles of South Africa's traditional rural communities."

So, our culture's gender roles - as aptly illustrated by this situation - are less rigid than those primitive black people's, are they? Unfortunately, I don't have time to go into that right now.

The Guardian article reads, in part:

The father of a women's world champion athlete today angrily denied accusations that the teenager was secretly born a man, insisting: "She is my little girl." Caster Semenya, 18, is undergoing a gender test to prove she is female after beating her rivals by a huge margin to win the gold medal in the world championship 800 metres in Berlin.

Family, friends and teachers at her home in South Africa recalled how Semenya played football with boys, wore trousers instead of skirts and endured teasing by her peers. But all asserted that she is definitely a woman.

The Guardian article goes on to say "Athletics' world governing body has asked South African officials to conduct a "gender verification test." The test, which takes weeks to complete, requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender."

While I can understand that steroids - and testosterone is, technically, a steroid - can enhance certain athletic abilities and performance, and thus it does make sense in some cases to categorize athletes. But I think we could do it with much more sensitivity, respect, finesse, and adherence to the real science behind sex and gender than illustrated by this case.

That said, it will come as no surprise that I find the language and tenor of the article - and the situation it describes - clueless and offensive. Of course, as a transsexual I'm not at all surprised by any of it. But how can cis-folks blather on so about "men" and "women" in a context like this and not realize how utterly meaningless and indefensible such rigid categories are?!


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As I understand the issue, even the most "rigorous" (read: invasive and potentially deeply humiliating) battery of tests will still not establish with any certainty that Semenya is or is not a woman, yes? Regardless of what the tests will "reveal," we could see this as our collective chance to thoroughly reexamine these outmoded categories. Unfortunately, I suspect we, the collective media-driven "we," is likely to focus only on the most sensationalistic aspects of this case.

I share your disbelief when you write: "how can cis-folks blather on so about "men" and "women" in a context like this and not realize how utterly meaningless and indefensible such rigid categories are?!"

It seems that the powers that be are also clinging to some outmoded ideas of how people should perform their gender identity. If she wore skirts, spoke with a soft voice...would they have been less likely to question her gender? Something tells me they'd have less of a case to proceed with this. And yet, there's little comfort in that...

I understand too well how we're all hard-wired to make assumptions about gender, but that shouldn't prevent us from questioning these categories, as you point out.

To clarify: By "hard-wired," I don't mean a set of biologically-driven impulses but the way we're schooled, practically from birth, to think about how people should perform their gender.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 23, 2009 11:56 PM

Yasmin, you said it perfectly! even the most "rigorous" (read: invasive and potentially deeply humiliating) battery of tests will still not establish with any certainty that Semenya is or is not a woman, Because "woman" is an ever changing, socially constructed concept. And we HAVE missed our collective chance here to thoroughly reexamine our outmoded categories.

And Jessica, you state it superbly! The issue is that the sex purity police, in particular the female subservience squad, seek to impose upon this woman their own limitations.

To reiterate, I believe categorizing competitors in some sports makes sense, as does testing for performance enhancing drugs. But the way we do it, and this case in particular, simply reflect our culture's preconceived and scientifically indefensible notions about sex and gender.

When we talk of Caster Semenya, about her physique, presumably her lung capacity, her reported deep voice, her stunning strength and endurance, we are speaking about secondary sexual characteristics.

Of the specialists who will be examining her, an invasive and demeaning procedure

gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender

all but the psychologist and the expert on gender will be examining her sex.

In some of the reports, we hear comments from the women who she defeated, not very pretty comments, which are inevitably founded on the history of international sport's aversion to men competing as women.

And this is founded upon the idea that testosterone was administered as a performance enhancer to alter the secondary sexual characteristics--that these women were really men.

Society's aversion to transsexual people hidden under a not too thick veneer.

The expert on gender and the psychologist, instead of examining her, should be examining the complaining competitors and the authors of some of the commentary, including Germaine Greer, instead of Semenya.

The issue here seems not to be that Semenya has, through illicit means, secured an unfair advantage, she has merely used what nature has given her--as all athletes, especially elite athletes do.

The issue is that the sex purity police, in particular the female subservience squad, seek to impose upon this woman their own limitations.

Brynn said, "But how can cis-folks blather on so about "men" and "women" in a context like this and not realize how utterly meaningless and indefensible such rigid categories are?!"

"cis-folks?" There are a whole mess of trans folks who also labor under the same ridged categories of gender, and they will indeed start commenting here.

It is interesting that in the news articles I have seen, they have quoted the Intersex Society of North America and had experts in the field say that gender is not so easily definable. Experts says that gender is fluid and not so ridged. Experts, who know about this counters all those ridged-thinking people out there. And, none of those experts are in any part of the trans community

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 24, 2009 5:27 PM

There are a whole mess of trans folks who also labor under the same ridged categories of gender...

Good point, Monica! A sad fact that never ceases to amaze me.

As for quoting ISNA (is it still around?), it totally depends on which articles you read. The more "mainstream" articles, I believe, have not made an effort to explain the complexities of sex and gender.

I believe ABC evening news used that.

It is interesting who is being called rigid and who is doing the calling.

I stand by my calls, to this post and to others, for a recognition of self-identification/self-recognition, not the imposition of identification/recognition not accepted by those so imposed upon.

I would have thought this the definition of oppression--certainly not anti-oppression.

I also stand by my analysis of the difference between sex and gender which, so easily conflated, then, due to such fluid conflation lead, counter-intuitively, to rigid thinking.

The road to human rights and the open society I would have thought ALL those who post articles and comments to this site would support is not, in my estimation, brought about by the refusal, repudiation and erasure that is the hallmark of such rigid thinking.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 24, 2009 6:26 PM

Jessica, I'm not even sure what your comment is alluding to...I know you and Monica have tangled on other threads, but it you have something specific to say, please be less vague. How have I, in this post, imposed an oppressive identification on you, or on anyone?

I refer to the usual argument, which I will not detail here--I'm sure others will--that, in a call for fluidity manage, nevertheless, to be rigid in their refusal to accept those who wish to be accepted for who they are.

I attempt here, as elsewhere, to post ideas and arguments--and address ideas and arguments.

It is a bit disturbing that preemptive comments such as

There are a whole mess of trans folks who also labor under the same ridged categories of gender, and they will indeed start commenting here

would be made.

And it saddens me you would echo it.

Why not wait until the arguments are actually made?

Unless they are addressed to me, also.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 25, 2009 12:34 PM

I'm not sure you're alluding to this...but one thing I don't want is to get into an argument on this thread with other trans folks on whether or not we're still trans after transition,/surgery, or what people who have not had lower surgery can legitimately claim or call themselves, etc. It's an argument I've watched for nearly two decades now, and it never seems to go anywhere. Frankly, I'm tired of it.

If this story illustrates anything, I think it illustrates the complexity of sex and gender, and the need for respect.

That said, I echoed Monica's statement because I have too frequently seen trans folks try to enforce the most rigid of binary systems, and in the process show an appalling lack of respect to people who disagree with them.

Angela Brightfeather | August 24, 2009 6:39 PM

I find it somewhat disingenuous and somewhat ironic to be talking about this subject among many in our own Transgender Community, who also practice the same type of comparisons and place the same, or at least similar, comparisons on others in our own community. Conforming to a rigid set of binary standards in order to be considered "serious" or "real" when it comes to gender diverse is extremely prevalent in our own community and the cause of many disputes in the past and even now.

Here we have a young athlete who is being treated in a way that some may call disrespectful. I agree with that opinion for all the same reasons stated. But do people in our own community ever stop and think that similar rules or standards applied to being one gender or another for the purposes of competition in a foot race, are being applied to most people in our own community just coming out, or those who are out but have not achieved a certain level of conformity regarding gender expression?

What Semenya has done all her life is to naturally blur those boundaries of gender, and live a life that has been documented as tortured to some degree. Probably not because of her native African beliefs, but most likely due to the Judeo/Christian beliefs that have been taught to others around her by Euro colonists over the last few hundred years. She has now reached a level of perfection in her abilities that challenge or at least question her gender presentation. Thus she must be tested, poked, looked into physically in every aspect and decreed to be real, in order to compete, because of a system that separates masculine from feminine performance and presentation.

I have heard this same argument many times at Transgender conventions, support group meetings and within the GLBT community itself. For a person to just say they are one gender or another, if they do not totally, or at least in a major way, conform to that claimed gender presentation, then they are just fooling around, fetishistic, or less than another person who has decided to "enhance" their gender presentation with pills, surgery or whatever makes them more conforming and comfortable, on a constant, every day basis, so as not to confuse the "rules".

What Semenya is having to go through now to prove that she is what she claims to be, is to a great degree, exactly what every Transgender person faces when they come out, or try to come out and live among other GLBTS people.

If there is any basic rule that needs to apply to Semenya and anyone else considering living their gender as they see it, it is that no one should have to conform to certain rules if they want to live as a man or a woman. Going either way along the gender spectrum, no one should be forced to meet certain criteria in order to be more real than someone else.

And that is why people like Semenya make other people feel a bit "icky" deep down in their gut and why she needs to be classified accurately. If she does not quite fit in the box that she wants to live in and we aren't quite sure where she belongs, send in the doctors and draw her blood and tell her what box she does belong in. Anything so that the "icky" feeling will go away.

Marja Erwin | August 24, 2009 9:27 PM

I don't take estradiol to "enhance" my "gender presentation."

I take it to make myself whole. I never once felt happy in the long years between the onset of puberty, and my first dose of hormones. I had not expected the results - I have rediscovered a range of emotions I had all but forgotten.

I don't want surgery to 'enhance" my "gender presentation."

I want it because the thing between my legs has never felt like part of my body.

I'm going to point to [url=http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/transphobic-tropes-4-–-“my-theories-are-more-important-than-your-experience”/]two[/url] [url=http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/critiquing-genderqueer-transsexualphobia/]posts[/url] on Questioning Transphobia.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 25, 2009 12:43 PM

Angela, very well said! And I strongly agree. As I said to Jessica in a previous comment, however, I am tired of having the same arguments with other trans folks on these issues that I've seen going on now for nearly 20 years.

That "icky" feeling you describe, I think in its variations, it's responsible for a host of evils, from sexism, through homophobia and transphobia, and on to the terrible treatment of intersexed children.

Whenever I catch myself feeling icky, I try to stop and figure out which deep-seated prejudice just got triggered.

people ALL need to respect each others
self identity.(SELF)
and not define each other!
one can be binary, non-binary, etc.
but,we are all people. and we should get OUT of each other's business!
(that goes BOTH ways, T community!)
respect is a two way street.
and for ALL glb's, and straight people, too.....
-j

I wish is was that simple. I can see you wish to show that respect. Too bad others won't.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 25, 2009 12:49 PM

Hey, Monica, I know that what you say is true about the lack of respect. But continually throwing it in here is only waving a red flag to engage in an argument which the other side is never going to concede.

Hivemind.

Calling it out gains some measure of respect.

Angela Brightfeather | August 25, 2009 12:45 AM

"I don't take estradiol to "enhance" my "gender presentation."

I take it to make myself whole. I never once felt happy in the long years between the onset of puberty, and my first dose of hormones. I had not expected the results - I have rediscovered a range of emotions I had all but forgotten.

I don't want surgery to 'enhance" my "gender presentation."

I want it because the thing between my legs has never felt like part of my body."

Marja,

I guess that is your business and for whatever reason that is fine. But don't sit there and tell me that drugs, doctors, surgery and a lot of other things are not corrective "enhancements" (and I'm being generous with that). They may be necessary for many reasons, but they still play into the creation of a binary system that enshrines the differernces between people and places them into one of two boxes called male or female, which allows for continued discrimination of people by justifying rules for each to live by and boundaries that are unfair, from the way they dress to what catagory they have to run a race in.

It is not so much what you do that I was referring to. But more how people (perhaps like you) treat other gender diverse people when you are finally comfortable in your own gender.

Julian Edward Domain | August 25, 2009 12:31 PM

She can't control what her body is, leave her alone and let her compete! I wish I could tell her it will be alright but they are going to bar her from competition. It wasn't right twenty years ago and it isn't right now.

I have great sympathy for Caster Semenya and her family. It's sad this has become an issue. I am also sad that the media is doing a poor job of explaining that there is real biology behind intersexed individuals. I'm a molecular biologist. The causes for intersex, at least many causes, are very well understood. If you would like to learn more. Dr. Veronica Drantz is a fantastic resource. Also, and this isn't a plug - I just can't write enough in this space, I'd be happy for feedback on my blog at jaysays.com on Caster Semenya.

Brynn, great post.