Current Affairs

The Unforgivable Transgression of Being Caster Semenya


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:

jesseowensI’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?

APTOPIX Germany Athletics Worlds


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.

By Tav

Free radical, philosophical dilletante, music completist.

33 replies on “The Unforgivable Transgression of Being Caster Semenya”

Spot-on. I’ll know more when I’m there in January, but from here my sense is that this has created an opening for SA trans/intersex orgs which they are actively and, one hopes, effectively using to disrupt the various sedimented assumptions about gender that circulate in different SA communities.

Great rant/post/manifesto – it’s good to have someone push back on the patriarchal cloak that’s been thrown over Semenya by track officials, especially.

I hadn’t dared look at the youtube archive on this. It’s kindof fascinating – but totally of a piece of what’s always already out there. Fact of the matter is, women were banned from participating in many sports for decades for fear of it making men out of them. That anxiety is still alive and thriving.

Have you seen my rant about phobic stuff about the WNBA on youtube?


Thanks for the links, to your post and to minstrelsy. Asa the Comic is indeed straight out of the minstrel tradition of course, complete with bawdy humor, verbal malapropism, and female impersonation. I see the minstrel tradition as a bit more dialogic than Spike Lee in Bamboozled does, though. Minstrel humor insists upon pointing out incongruities that polite discourse covers up. This includes the incongruity of the curious/hostile social “starer” (Asa can neither look at or away from “Caster Semenya’s” package); instead of hiding this staring, he performs it openly for both his viewers and “Semenya” to see. So while he is both sexist and lesbophobic, the repartee between him and “Caster Semenya” is not one in which he necessarily gets the upper hand. I think that’s why I see it as more dialogic than the WBNA spoof, in which the joke rests on literally reducing female athletes to two-dimensional pixels, which two couch potatoes get to laugh at through the double mediation of montage and the framing of the YouTube video itself.
Thanks for prompting me to think further about this!

Thanks! This is the most lucid reading of the panic(s) around Caster Semenya that I’ve read yet. Still I wonderif making sense of Semanya as a trans or intersex icon, exemplary of queer and anti-racist critiques of “geneticized” racialization and the coercive force of a binary sex/gender system, doesn’t risk its own appropriative violence. I wonder what conditions would be required for Semenya to actually speak this experience in terms that were meaningful to her.

I suppose the main risk is the linguistic violence of redescription, yes. But isn’t that already happening, at a far faster, deeper, and more extensive scale in the mainstream sentimental appeals to natural race and gender? Consider the makeover, which, far from limiting itself to Semenya’s words, actively seeks to more or less coercively redescribe her image and even her bodily habitus. I am not normally one to insist upon the postmodern dispersal of the subject, but I do think we have a case here where any search for a meaningful language of her actual experience is very tricky to say the least. What I tried to do, rather than even attempt that, was simple to figure out what I myself was thinking and feeling about her right now.

The root of the problem for athletic competitions is that we have male and female categories, under the theory that men have a natural advantage in some areas and women in others. If that’s the case, gender queries and testing are legitimate. In fact, they should be omnipresent to avoid the kind of emotional injury they can cause to people who are singled-out.
On the other hand, gender-based testing is clearly socially offensive. But that’s just attacking the symptom. The problem is segregation.
Men and women should all compete for the same medals, and the goal should be to excel at the sport, not excel at the sport *in comparison to other people like you*. That, in itself, is offensive. We only tolerate it because there’s an underlying misogyny present in most competitive sports.

It’s not fair to attack critics who think Caster is cheating by competing with girls. They aren’t attacking women, or even a woman. They suspect a *person* of taking advantage of a categorical system and thereby cheating other genuine members of that category a fair chance to win. They would likely object just as strenuously if a heavyweight wrestler used a busted scale and was able to enter the lightweight competition. And then of course there are assholes who like to tease people who are different (aka Youtube). But their involvement does not invalidate the concern that Caster may be competing in the wrong category, and possibly intentionally. Cheating does exist and it isn’t wrong to test for it just because people get excited whenever “gender” is brought to the fore. Excited, but not necessarily coherent.
I don’t know the details, but I think it’s likely that Caster Semenya is a normal girl, as far as we can say olympic athletes are normal, and the opposition is mostly based on jealousy. But what if a man did sneak into a womens’ event? What if they even went so far as to get surgery and/or take hormones to appear female. Wouldn’t that be a clear violation of some code of conduct? Or even if a person born physically as male but identifying herself as a woman competed in and won a womens’ event?

At this point in our social culture it’s ridiculous to segregate athletics by gender, or anything for that matter. Men and women may have genetic and cultural predilictions for certain ways of thinking and certain activities, perhaps, but we live in a society that condemns prejudice and our rules and regulations should bolster the idea of equal treatment for all people. Race and gender should never even come up.

Typical liberal agenda-advancing spin. The story is not about humiliating someone, but is based on eligibility to compete in women’s events. A typical liberal might think, so what if a man who has a sex-change operation competes with women in sports; so what if a drag queen does; heck, why not put up Mike Tyson against a woman in the boxing ring.

Oh, but there I am sure even the liberal’s constant pursual of their gender- and family-destroying agenda comes to an end. They realize there is no woman who can stand up to Mike Tyson, and in general, no woman who can stand up to the best men in virtually any sport. Does the truth hurt you? Well it is not the truth hurting you – it is the perverted liberal ideology, which is based not on science or truth but on amoral, unprincipled “morality”.

I suppose the “liberal” answer to the conundrum, that if men and women were to compete together in the same sports (consider soccer, football, basketball, hockey, golf, running, skiing, anything really) there would be virtually no women athletes as they would not make the cut.

To this the “liberal” would probably have a new agenda item: castrate all men at birth so that they do not benefit unfairly from their biology. It’s unfair!

You are merely reproducing the false choice I objected to in my piece. This isn’t a matter of either humiliating someone or merely establishing their eligibility to compete as a woman. The compulsory demand to produce gender as a stable binary that someone can be found “ineligible” to fit within produces repeated humiliations for a range of bodies. (And not just the intersexed or trans or queer or raced bodies, although, importantly for this particular case, those are among the most easily scapegoated). And another point you miss — or maybe its included under my gender and family-destroying agenda (guilty as charged) — is that Semenya represents for me not just a case of victimized humiliation, but an exemplar, a virtuoso, someone whose performance as a runner occurs within but not wholly of the gendered, racist, and commodified world of competitive sports. Her performance queers and transgresses her sport, precisely because her very existence and thrilling achievement nullifies the either-or choice between humiliation and eligibility you insist upon repeating.

I am so tired of people telling ME what I should look like as a female. I am butch, get over yourselves–stop chasing me out of the women’s room, stop asking me why I would want to try and look like a guy, stop hassling me for my difference, stop trying to fit me in your binary world view. I am a Native American and we have respect for our Two-Spirit people. I am the perfect embodiment of both male and female. I do not wish to change my physical body to conform to what makes YOU feel comfortable.

Another tomboy

I agree with all that. I don’t look like either gender myself and SICK of anyone who’d tell me how I should look, I usually tell them to go have themselves in various ways in their mother too.

But I can’t blame the gender tests requested on Caster (though it should have been carried out privately)–because bio-males have an advantage in sports due to testosterone. Now matter how butch a person is, she’s can’t get the same results out of sports unless testosterone is added.

Thanks for your comment. Katherine Franke has a good response to your support of the gender tests at her blog: it might lead you to reconsider your assumption that testosterone is a “male” hormone that, when “added” to female bodies, produces an intrinsically unfair competitive advantage. As she notes: “To those of you who say: “I don’t think it’s fair that someone with such high testosterone levels be allowed to compete in the women’s track events. What’s to stop men from competing in these events and winning all of them?” I have the following answer: Then don’t call them women’s and men’s events, define the events by testosterone levels – those with levels up to some ceiling run in one event, those with higher levels run in another event. Collapsing “female” and “male” into testosterone levels is both bad science and bad social policy. “

The reports out now (if true) suggest that she has internal testes that produce testosterone levels above normal levels in female athletes. This gives her a distinct advantage and cannot be allowed if there are male and female divisions in sport. It’s just not fair to her competitors. I assume people would object to her having a device implanted that produces testosterone – well this is just an “accident” of nature that has implanted such a “device”.

Rich’s point of eliminating gender is an interesting one, but unrealistic given the desire of many women to participate in sport without having to compete with men. An olympic games featuring just athletes w/o gender categories would be an almost, if not all, male-only affair.

Thanks for your comment. I think I’ve already had my say on the points you raise about biological determinism and athletic competition. All I’ll add is that your comparison of Semenya’s alleged testosterone levels to nature accidentally implanting a “device” enabling her to compete unfairly against real women is precisely the kind of rhetoric — rhetoric that considers trans or intersex bodies as intrinsic deceptions — that I am denouncing.

If ever before, the identity of one individual, has brought to the table deeper social issues, this is such an occasion. I am a sport enthusiast and I see tremendous problem with having women and men compete together, as Rich suggested. To piggy back on Sam’s comments, not only would men dominate sporting events, the sheer biological imbalances would set, women and sports back a hundred years

I believe the issues that are associated with this phenomenon have more to do with what are and are not acceptable realities of femininity and masculinity?. Caster brings to question how masculine must a woman or feminine a man be in order to be considered the opposite sex? The issue is about gender and changing our social constructs of what is male and what is female.

There is a bit of humor to know that it was German Athletes complaining since during the 1960’s and 70’s, German female athletes were constantly being test for testosterone levels. Their athletic association believed in doping its athletes so they would win. Caster did not take a drug to run faster, her speed and talents are natural, unaltered.

The big issue here is that Caster was not doping or chemically altering her hormonal levels. She was born with both sexes, which naturally caused her hormonal levels to be higher than the “normal” woman. The question I have is,Were her levels of testosterone enough to shift her from what is considered to be female over to male? If she is still consider scientifically female than I believe she should not be stripped of her medals nor should she be forced to compete with men. My other question is why not test all athletes? I wonder how many other athletes have the same advantage or disadvantage, naturally?

Caster has the right to be whom she wishes, as I believe we all do. As far as male or female, i believe an intersex person was given by God the right to choose what he or she feels more comfortable being and no one has the right to contest that decision.

thanks for further problematizing this debate. what’s sad is that this 18-year-old person has to go through this so publicly, and the fact that she has and unfortunately will be “displayed” in a light not in her favor.

This patriarchy spiel is the proverbial “only tool a hammer, every problem a nail.” I’ll be glad when analysis of gender can be freed of this myopia.

The problem here, stated by some, is that there is a clear segregation in minds of most between “male” and “female”. That these are actually not trivial to define biologically – where there is a spectrum involving tissue, hormones, brain, and outward interaction with culture – does not seem to fully impress itself on most, regardless of their perspective in this debate.

When we decide culturally to define things that do not have easy definitions, we get into trouble. This debate involves not only the issues of gender identity, but, perhaps more strongly, the greed and hypercompetitiveness of top level sports. Like in finance, or war, which are in essence often quite similar, “all if fair”, and the goal is to defeat others, enrich oneself. To not see this running through the controversy is to get obsessed with useful but overplayed and distorted obsessions with social structures (e.g., patriarchy).

For the biologically ignorant (sadly, most commenting), depending on WHY Caster Semenya is intersexed, the “advantages” of testosterone etc can be very complicated. Ironically, no one has issues with the huge male that produces more (or has more responsive receptors) and his inherent biological advantage. Since he “fits” the norm, even the glorified, the intrinsic disparity – that other males cannot possible do enough work to overcome a natural genetic advantage – is overlooked, or considered a “good” part of the sport – “God given talents.” But place talents like that, genetic advantage, in a context not socially acceptable, then it becomes “wrong.”

There are many reasons Caster Semenya may have the physique she has. Testosterone may not play much of a role, in fact – there are intersexed conditions where it does not. It could be due to other mutations, the interactions of several hormones. She could be doping (and I do not use this judgmentally – most top athletes actually do dope; it levels the playing field).

The underlying biology shouldn’t be an issue, anymore than it is for inherent advantages to any athlete in their sport (Armstrong has a huge, literally, heart, Phelps has off the charts recovery from muscle fatigue, etc). These are only a problem in the case of Caster Semenya because she doesn’t fit inside any acceptable gender box.

For those with a problem with this, it shows that they are unable to accept what God (or nature, or karma, or whatever you want to call it) has blessed her with.

As for one’s sex, it’s simple, you are female if your chromosomes are XX and male if they ar XY. As for gender, that can get more complicated. Gender is of course sociall constructed and many do confuse it with sex. They are completely diffferent. Sex we have no control over as it is biological. Gender is simple for many as they look at their body parts and act according to society’s norms and accepted values. Some individuals are born with both reproductive parts, although in most of those situations, one is less prominent than the other. This still does not matter, in competitions, a blood test will determine which sex one is and that should be the end of the argument. It is not anyone’s fault/problem if their body NATURALLY produces higher levels of anything! This situation is a tragic one emotionally and psychologically for not only Caster, but anyone who is questioned about their true idendtity anywhere. By the way, aren’t all athletes mandated to go through testing at some point before they compete…if these allegations were true, would this not have been noticed at some other point and this issue would not have ever exploded the embarrassing way it did? Excellent points Tavia!

Thank you for your comment. All I would note is that I think you might be interested to know that sex is not simply a matter of just XX and XY: there are in fact many other variations of chromosomes an individual can have. And then there are the very complex questions of how chromosomes express themselves as an individual develops. This is well known to medical science but poorly understood or actively disavowed by the public which insists there must be some certainty somewhere to sex/gender. The Intersex Society of North America has a good FAQ on this:

Gender and sex are not as simple as often made out to be, with sex being the physical, “natural” and immutable condition of the body and “gender” the social role that may (or may not) be associated with the sexed body in a correlative way — one the biological; the other the cultural definition of how we divide humans into the two categories of men and women. Sex is, in itself, a “condition” of culture, ad as malleable as gender roles. Who, for example, gets to define which hormones are “male” and which “female”? And what percentage of them in which body defines the appropriate sex? Surely, a cultural decision… Semenya’s case reminds me of the Olympic controversy around Maria Patino’s unruly body 20 years ago, and our bullying, binary categories of gender, still well-alive and kicking `til it hurts. Patino was, despite a “clearly” female-sexed body, deemed a “man” after chromosomal tests showed that she had XY chromosomes. She neither “looked like a man” nor felt herself to be anything other than a woman, but the decision to test her (a compulsory test performed on all athletes) ruined her career. It didn’t matter that she had all the “primary markers” of the female body. Her chromosomes told us the supposedly True tale: She was a “man”. Again, is this not a cultural decision? It’s time we let “nature” be and start looking at sexes as plural and diverse. We were able to do so with gender (once thought to “naturally” correlate with sex). Can we not conceive of a world with many sexes, learn to see them and accept them outside of the narrow “male” and “female” binary?

Thanks Rachel. Odd, I went home and opened up Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed, and there was a very similar story. I’ll definitely read these links.

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