Monday, September 14, 2009

Essentialism, gender and Caster Semenya

by Gracie Remington

After hearing that Caster Semenya has gone into hiding and is receiving trauma counseling in the wake of the firestorm of publicity surrounding her gender verification tests, Peggy Orenstein’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine seems much more immediate and intriguing. In an article titled “What Makes a Woman A Woman?,” Orenstein details her own struggle with the concept of femininity when faced with the prospect of a double masectomy and the removal of her ovaries due to a genetic predisposition to reproductive cancers, tying it to the current hubbub surrounding Semenya’s gender. Orenstein talks candidly about her experience, recalling various moments of uncertainty regarding her gender following her diagnosis: “I began to fret: without breasts or hormone-producing ovaries, what would the difference be, say, between myself and a pre-op female-to-male transsexual? That seemed an awfully thin straw on which to base my entire sense of womanhood. What, precisely, made me a girl anyway? Who got to decide? How much did it matter?”

Orenstein details her own struggles with these questions in the article, and connects it with Semenya’s current plight, arguing that “identity is not simply the sum of our parts.” Indeed, while the nature of the controversy surrounding Semenya is essentialist, reducing womanhood to a series of biological traits that can be tested and analyzed, very little discussion has surrounded the essentialism surrounding gender identity, and instead has focused (rightly as well) on the questionable leaking of the test results (which now may not be the actual results) and racial and gender politics. What Semenya’s situation does bring up, and what should be discussed more thoroughly as her case continues to unfold, is the way in which we as a global society choose to define gender, and why we must use such reductionist methodologies to establish someone’s womanhood. Why does the alleged presence of a greater amount of hormones in her body make Semenya less of a woman? How should biological differences be accounted for in competitive sports? How should we talk about gender? What actually makes a human being a woman? Semenya’s case, and Orenstein’s article, bring to light all of these questions that need to be discussed, in both the context of athletics and society as a whole.

Orenstein, for her part, concludes that her womanhood derives from her own assertion and acceptance of it, claiming that regardless of her biological condition (she elected to forgo surgery, after all), she is female “merely because… [she says] so. And maybe that will have to be enough.” Maybe it will have to be enough, both for Orenstein and for the rest of the world. While the existence of gender tests in athletics is understandable, perhaps the world of sports, along with our global society as a whole, needs to re-examine the concept of gender and decide if essentialist doctrines surrounding sex are beneficial and useful after all.

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