GUEST COMMENTARY: Gender politics play out in Caster Semenya controversy

Friday, October 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The unfolding story surrounding South African athlete Caster Semenya focuses little on the 800-meter race she won at the track and field world championships in Berlin. It doesn’t highlight her running or accomplishments at all.

Instead, headlines about the 18-year-old runner are centered on her sex. After the discovery of Semenya’s both male and female anatomy, an explosion of opinions surfaced in the media.


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Sheri-Marie Harrison, an English professor at MU who is of Jamaican descent, questioned how deeply the media should pry into Semenya’s life, and pry they definitely did.

“It feels like an assault. It feels like a violation of privacy. It feels like a violation of self," she said.

Harrison analyzed Semenya's gender as if she were a Jamaican athlete, instead of South African.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be a denial of her, but oops, we let something out that the rest of the world should not have known that we had,” she said.

When held against the success of Jamaican athletes like Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell, there would be a sense of disgrace within the athletic program. In that way, it was brutally revealing.

“It renders her naked in front of the entire world,” Harrison said, adding that the disclosure was violently exposing.

The question poked and prodded at by global media is how to categorize an intersex athlete. In an athletic world that requires a separation of sexes, categorization can be damaging for an intersex athlete.

Regulation for intersex people in athletics has been criminalized in a way that promotes the kind of insensitivity that is common from Americans regarding Africans, said Loise Wambuguh, a Kenya-born graduate student at MU.

“You wouldn’t understand what I mean because you’ve grown up in a place where information just flows, but I’ve grown up where it’s better not to say,” she said.

By distinguishing her as different from other women, international media exposed her, Wambuguh said. Western culture was at the root of that exposition.

After saying gender testing of the young athlete was not done in South Africa, Leonard Chuene, president of Athletic South Africa, admitted to lying, according to

His reasoning — to protect Semenya — seemed overly compassionate for a politician, especially following earlier statements. Chuene exclaimed that South Africa would not allow Europeans to define their “children,” according to the New York Times. He prematurely accused authorities of acting off of prejudices, particularly ideas of gender expression that reflected a Western culture.

Vanessa Eboh, a Nigerian student at MU, gave a different opinion about the gender testing.

“The whole reason she was gender tested was more for fairness with the other participants because it did give her an advantage,” she said.  “Men have more muscle mass. I don’t think it was because of any kind of Western culture.”

At the heart of the issue lies a limited gender dichotomy that leaves intersex athletes to be ignored by athletic officials. However, Harrison said that this issue was one of severe circumstances. For Semenya’s competitors, it was their livelihood.

“She competes with women who are sanctioned in very serious ways," she said. "What will success get them? Survival.”

For athletes from smaller, less-developed countries, athletic success meant they could eat, go to school and provide for their families. This was part of colonialism’s effect on the African world. The other was the African character that emerged in response to colonialism, according to Wambuguh. Colonizing forces stripped most of the continent of its native culture, she said.

So once those countries slowly began to gain their independence, that fight became one against Western cultural influence in general; Semenya’s supporters fought for their own definitions of femininity.

“For example, when people get married here, they used the word beauty,” Wambuguh said. “In Africa, they talk about behavior. They say the lady comes from a hard-working family.”

American culture strictly limits gender expression to fitting into one of two categories determined by physical appearance. This is part of the problem.

Harrison described immediate feelings of insincerity when she saw Semenya on the cover of You, a South African woman’s magazine. She wore curly hair, a black dress and gold jewelry.

It was simply not her. And more complex, it was her attempt to fit into a narrow depiction of what it means to be feminine.

“There is a softness that just seemed imposed in a way, and it seemed imposed just for the reasons of projecting these Western ideas of femininity,” Harrison said. “‘This is what a woman is supposed to look like.’”

Lauren Foreman, a senior journalism student at MU, is earning a multicultural certificate that highlights her interest in gender theory.

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Eric Cox October 16, 2009 | 10:14 a.m.

Well lots of blame but no solution, gender expression and the scientific classification of gender are two different things. I support the LGBT, but this isn't a simple issue on how people identify themselves. As long as there is gender classification in sports I don't see how this is going to be avoided. What about her competition, I'm assuming that whomever she beat out for a spot on the team would also like to feed their family, unfortunately there seems to be no completely fair way to deal with this issue.

And I know it is popular to blame "Western Society" but did you consider that without it there would be no competition, no money to feed that family. No malaria medication, no mega doses of vitamin E, no AIDs research, etc.

I find most Americans very accepting of other cultures, try and take your culture to another "non-Western Society" country and see how far that gets you.

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