By Tavia Nyong’o
World champion runner Caster Semenya returned to a hero’s welcome in her native South Africa last month, where the public denounced the “gender testing” she was forced to undergo after her gold medal in Berlin. Outraged by the racist and sexist comments of rivals who told journalists that you could tell she was a man just by looking at her, the president of South African athletics, Leonard Chuene, resigned from the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF). “This girl has been castigated from day one, based on what?” he told the LA Times “You denounce my child as a boy when she’s a girl? If you did that to my child, I’d shoot you.”
South Africans aren’t the only ones angrily comparing Semenya’s treatment to that of Saartjie Baartman, the nineteenth-century Khoisan woman who was exhibited throughout Europe as a sexualized monstrosity. White audiences guffawed, prodded and poked at her exposed body, which they laughingly demeaned as that of a “Hottentot Venus”: the inverse of European standards of beauty. Challenging Semenya’s femaleness, people now assert, is imperialism all over again. Its an especially shameful and traumatic humiliation, they stress, for a teenager to experience. The South African newspaper, The Guardian and Mail wrote:
At 18, Caster Semenya is quite probably frightened and confused. Her dignity has been attacked, her profoundest sense of self laid bare with potentially damaging psychological consequences. But when she returns home, she seems assured of a special welcome from family and friends who have never sat in judgment on her nature. They have always accepted her simply as Caster, the girl who can outrun them all.
Her case is understandably upsetting, but I for one object to the manner in which Semenya is being spoken for and defended in passages above. Is it her defenders who are perhaps embarrassed and ashamed by her exuberant embodiment, more than her? Semenya, according to her family and friends, is a rough and tough tomboy who excels in sports, scorned skirts for trousers from the very beginning, and shrugged off teasing and bullying about her gender long before the issue exploded in Berlin. Young though she may be, who is to say Semenya cannot know and enjoy who she? Who is to say that her “profoundest sense of self” lies with being considered and treated like a “girl”?
If ever a case called for an intersectional analysis that included queer and trans perspectives, as well as anti-racist and anti-imperialist ones, this is it. Whether indignantly paternalistic, like Chuene, or more “liberally” expressing concern over a fragile, damaged psyche, like the Mail and Guardian, Semenya’s defenders are clearly dealing with a gender panic of their own.
And who wouldn’t be? World-class female athletes have long made people anxious, particularly gorgeously muscle-bound black ones. The splendor of their world, which a bystander like myself can only imagine, must be one in which conventional barriers of the body are left behind in the dust. In the name of protecting African femininity from a western, scientific gaze, Semenya’s defender also disguise their own patriarchal investment in naming and controlling this gender excess. But as her career already illustrates, such gender excess is hard to control.
As From a Left Wing writes, apropos of Semenya and of similar cases in women’s soccer:
What is it we are looking for in a women’s game? Surely not a confirmation of the “femininity” of the people on the pitch. It must be something else – like how the women’s game allows us to escape from narrow ideas about who and what women are. Why shouldn’t women’s football be exactly the game to welcome gender-bending warriors like the intersex athlete, and the transgender warrior?
The real challenge when an ugly, gender-disciplinary inquisition like the one the IAAF has started crops up is not to allow ourselves to be blackmailed into simplistic reassertions of gender normativity for the sake of the vulnerable child. Here Semenya herself leads the way, in her succint response to the ordered test: “I don’t give a damn.” Instead of making her a traumatized symbol of a violated continent, how about adopting some of her contemporary, wordly pugnacity?
And instead of insisting upon the naturalness of her gender, how about turning the question around and denaturalizing the world of gender segregated, performance-obsessed, commercially-driven sports, a world that can neither seem to do with or without excessive bodies like Semenya’s and their virtuosic performances?
The rush to compare Semenya to Saartjie Baartman, while obvious for nationalistic reasons, misses something crucial. Baartman was exhibited and castigated for what the imperialist eye took to be her abberant femininity. A better comparison here would be to the many trans bodies (like famed jazz pianist Billy Tipton above) who have been disciplined and punished for their female masculinity. As in Semenya’s case, female masculinity is often associated with forms of disguise and deceit (the stigma of “doping” and of South African Athletics perhaps trying to “pass off” a male runner as a woman is clearly relevant here). But it is also associated, and for related reasons, with the extraordinary. Runners like Semenya are as much virtuoso performers as are players like Tipton. And the virtuoso always risks being scapegoated as a freak, even as they exhibit a skill that is, in a sense, always already in all of us.
We are drawn to the virtuoso, the virtuoso draws us out, but it is that very intensity of response that can lead to the kind of panicked rush to quarantine virtuosity, or explain it away as plain freakishness. Female masculinity like that of Semenya or Tipton can be thought of as virtuosic performances of gender.
We need more virtuosos like her just around now. The long sordid history of considering transgender embodiment an intrinsic hoax is still relevant, regardless of whether one wants to claim Semenya as a trans figure. It reflects the essentialist conviction that bodies must have a stable sex that presents itself in appropriate dress, voice, attitude and behavior, and that anybody who does not must by definition be engaged in a deception. This essentialist imperative to expose, examine and fix the transgressive body is also what is motivating the IAFF’s panic around Semenya. It represents the latest intensification of gender essentialism, in which the body itself — its genetic makeup, hormonal levels, etc. — is taken to participate in a kind of self-deception; one that, we are told, will take weeks if not years to fully unravel. The threat hanging over Semenya — to be “stripped” of her medal — is a clear giveaway that the logic remains one of a deceit demanding forcible public exposure.
The essentialist response to this essentialist attack on Semenya is to reassert the commonsense of the gender binary: “In Africa we know men from women.” The anti-essentialist response is to acknowledge how easily rattled our dependence upon the coherence of that fictional binary is. One such anti-essentialist strategy is humor, which unlike humorlessness can admit that exceptional bodies, in their incongruity, hold potentially important insights into the non-congruence of all bodies to the purported “norm.”
The offensive but infectious “She’s a man” humor all over YouTube (see above) and internet doesn’t get us very far politically. But as a vernacular response it reminds me less of Baartman than it does of another nineteenth-century “freak,” Peter Sewally, who was apprehended in women’s attire in antebellum New York. Like Semenya, Sewally was also forcibly submitted to a genital examination to establish his “gender,” and prints of him as the “Man-Monster” were displayed for sale, much as images of Semenya now circulate worldwide for cheap amusement. (I write about Sewally in my recent book, and so does Jonathan Ned Katz.) The important lesson from Sewally (or for that matter, Baartman, as revisioned by Suzan-Lori Parks) is how unapologetic he remained in the face of public ridicule and legal reprisal. “
In his defiant nonrespectability, Sewally serves as an important historical example of what queer theorists like to call transformational shame. The more ambivalent YouTube responses to Semenya (like the one below) do seem also to dabble in the shared and public indignity of sex. Lets just say I’m more interested in a somewhat phobic response to Semenya’s physicality that digresses into a speculation about how drag queens he knows tuck their meat than I am in patriarchal threats to shoot anyone who challenges the sex of his child:
I’m tripping, as I finish this overlong entry, about these events having been ignited in, of all places, Berlin, where Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s documentarian, took her famous photographs of African American sprinter Jesse Owens at the Nazi Olympics in 1936. I’m reminded of how modern international athletics is so deeply shaped by its disavowed eugenicist history. Black athleticism, as Paul Gilroy argued in his oft-misread polemic, Between Camps, increasingly stands in for a superhuman commodified physicality that remains, nonetheless, paradoxically attached to what he calls “infrahumanity,” or humanity on a lower spectrum or frequency.
Gilroy presciently warned of a genetic turn in race-thinking, which the current attempt to reinstate the gender binary at a chromosomal or endrochrinal level is reminding us of. Our challenge then, is to think against this ongoing regeneration of eugenic ideals, based on bodily capacities that black people are supposed to possess in excess (to the detriment of our intellectual capacities), while sustaining hope in the immanent possibilities Gilroy also sees in infrahumanity, possibilities which I’ve tried to identify here with Semenya’s virtuosic performance of gender.
Who knows, but on the lower frequencies, Caster Semenya runs for all of us?
UPDATE Wednesday: Shortly after posting this, this story came down the wires, ironically confirming just how unforgiveable Semenya’s transgression was:
Like everyone else thrust into the public eye these days, Semenya has got an instant makeover to render her a more suitable standard bearer for national femininity. All I’ll say about this development is that it is just further proof of Judith Butler’s thesis in Gender Trouble, that, while we often think of sex or gender-deviant bodies as failed copies of a natural original, “natural” gender is actually a mimetic attempt to forestall the uncanny prospect of their being no original gender at all, simply copies of copies. This magazine distinguishes itself in the transparency of its appeal to such a strategy. “Look at Caster now” can only mean: refer back from this image, which we present to you as the true, real Caster, to the prior, excessive and disturbing image one, and you will somehow have your perception of gender stabilized. That such stability of gender is never achieved is unfortunately not a good enough reason for people to stop trying.