The real gender test
Earlier this summer, South African 800-meter champion Caster Semenya made world headlines after the International Association of Athletics Federations accidentally leaked that she would be required to take a gender test in order to maintain her gold medal in the women’s race. While many people—especially South Africans—expressed outrage at the supposed slanders against Semenya’s womanhood, I have to confess that I found their fury rather misplaced. During pre-championship testing, Semenya’s testosterone levels were fully triple the normal amount for women, and the IAAF in fact requested the gender test before she ever stepped foot on the Berlin track. If you ask me (not that anyone did), the greater problems were:
1) if the IAAF was suspicious that Semenya might not really be eligible to compete in the women’s race, why did they let her? Why force her to endure the frustration and disappointment of having her success stripped away?
2) for such a large organization, the IAAF really needs to get its act together. Semenya’s story got out because someone sent an email to the wrong person. Come on.
3) it’s utterly ridiculous that they called that test a “gender” test. The IAAF has absolutely no business researching whether or not Semenya conforms to the West’s binary division of gender norms—i.e., whether she wears dresses, plays with dolls, and prefers pink to blue. No, they were investigating her SEX—her genitalia and her biochemistry—which are relevant to her sports performance. Her gender is completely beside the point.
As such, I initially found Semenya’s reaction to the IAAF’s blunder (and misnomer) quite inspiring. She and her family passionately asserted that her appearance and behavior should have no relevance to her sex; just because she looked, acted, or dressed rather like a boy didn’t at all mean that she was male. Their argument became even stronger when Semenya’s birth certificate—which declares her to be female—was released as evidence. Intentionally or unintentionally, she and her family were making a really powerful statement about the crucial differences between “sex” and “gender,” and providing an excellent illustration of why the two terms are not interchangeable. Just recently, however, the Semenya family’s admirable attempts to end the tyranny that is our automatic association between the female sex and the feminine gender hit a pretty serious wall.
Caster got a makeover.
The 18-year-old sprinter posed for South Africa’s You magazine in various outfits composed of sequins, dresses, and stilettos. During the shoot, she told her interviewers that “I'd like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance…I've never bought my own clothes, my mum buys them for me, but now that I know I can look like this I'd like to dress like this more often.” Such a concession to gender stereotypes really flies in the face of her former defiance, her willingness to be a little different—especially in the sprinting world, where women often wear jewelry and makeup when they compete. Until this makeover, Semenya had been living proof that being a girl and being girly are not the same thing.
I want to be proud of Semenya’s professed self-affirmation—“I am who I am and I am proud of myself,” “God made me the way I am and I accept myself”—but this magazine makeover tells a rather different story, one steeped more in shame than in self-acceptance. The IAAF has permitted her to keep her gold medal, but I wonder whether Semenya’s public attempts to appear more stereotypically feminine don’t constitute a different kind of gender test—one which she might have failed.