Monday, August 24, 2009

The Human Race

The issue of Caster Semenya, the 18 year old female athlete who has won two gold and one silver medal for her country - South Africa - makes me wonder. It makes me wonder how far we have come in the past 15 years post Apartheid, and how far we have come since the inclusion in the Constitution of certain phrases which are supposed to guarantee equality for people on the grounds of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation with everyone else.

Despite certain shortcomings in the wording of this document, which still allows a degree of hate crime and hate speech to slip through the loopholes, it seems clear that such a shift still has not taken place in the mindset of the people of South Africa. Clearly this also has not taken place in other countries either.

It has been reported that this fracas had a prequel three years ago in SA, and that the questions that arose now around Caster's gender could have and should have been answered then.

Following the abysmal treatment of a star athlete, SA is now making all sorts of complaints about the way she was handled - or should I say - manhandled?

SA is supposedly complaining to the UN about it, and the papers are filled with notification of outrage at the handling of this womans' human rights. But I have to ask a question:

Is this outrage because she is a woman who has been accused of being a man - or is it outrage because of the transgender issue?

Are they pissed off because she is a woman whose gender is claimed to be less female and more masculine and therefore lending her a supposed unfair advantage over other competitors - or are they outraged because of their perception that she could be male and "masquerading" as a woman - or even transgender? In short, IF Caster were to emerge from these dehumanizing tests a transgender person, whether surgically or genetically or even hormonally, would they claim then that she is NOT female - or at least not female ENOUGH? Would they then say to her, sorry sweety - you're not really a woman at all, let's have those medals back?

I have seen her pictures, I have heard her voice on the radio. Yes, she looks quite butch - but especially so in the pictures the newspapers have employed in sowing doubt in the minds of the public. Nothing sells birdcage liners like controversy. Online I have seen some other pictures which show her to be a bit more feminine that those. I have to admit she has a deep masculine voice - but no less masculine than the voice of a dainty 17 year old girl I once knew who was beyond any doubt a cisgender female and who could still be called "sir" on the phone. In fact, being a post op transsexual female myself she had my sympathy - I know how it feels to be shy and embarrassed because of your voice - as the one thing that causes you embarrassment - or outs you right away.

Some people have asked how difficult can it be to tell if she is female or not? My question is: how female does she have to be?

Some say "pop her in the shower and see what she's packing". Simple. Is it? The absence of male genitalia and the presence of female genitalia would make her female, wouldn't it? Duh. Then others will say "yes, but if she's had surgery and was a man before then that wouldn't show". At this point I have to ask how does that make her any less female than any other female?

Some will point out that there are men out there who do not even know that they are actually female according to their DNA - and the same for women who are genetically male. And then you have wonder why society still has a hard time getting to grips with the simple concept of sexual orientation and gender identity issues? I mean, half of it is clearly genetic - even hormonal - and in either case BIOLOGICAL and perfectly natural. That can be one explanation for all the feminine men and masculine women out there. And yet when an 18 year old girl who excels in athletics competes in a women's event and happens to look less feminine than those who lost the races - somehow she is a "cheat" and an "impostor" "masquerading" as a woman.

I find that a rather ironic claim, laced with sour grapes.

How many of us can remember what the female Soviet athletes looked like? Big, butch looking, muscle-bound, androgynous even. How many years has it been since the Soviets entered teams of women who were so masculine because of steroid treatments to make them stronger and more competitive at international sporting events? At least until it was outlawed and discouraged by regular and surprise testing? Has Caster failed any such tests? Has she tested positive for any artificial steroid use? No? Has her body got a natural abundance of male hormones perhaps? If so, and she is a born female, then no matter how masculine her appearance - or performance, is she then any less female than her competitors?

Note that I didn't ask if she was less feminine - but less FEMALE.

There is one simple way to tell if a woman is a post op transsexual. No matter how perfect the surgery, no matter how feminine the body, or even how compelling the genetics - a simple ultrasound scan will reveal the one leftover part that at the present stage of medical advancement cannot be removed completely - a penis stub and prostate gland. All trans-women have one, including me. Yes, I know I hide it well, but it's there. I don't like it, but it's a fact of life.

So let's say she's born female, has a natural hormonal imbalance (unaided by artificial steroids) to account for her less feminine appearance - encouraged by her athletic training, perhaps even genetically male. Do any of these factors mean that she is not a woman? Bear in mind all this along with the fact that she was BORN female?Does this mean she should be disqualified and labelled a cheat?

I think you can see the prejudice at work here.

But let's take it a step further - among the listed tests they wanted to perform on Caster, who to them seems to be no more than a guinea-pig for their experiments, was a psychological evaluation. Why? So supposing she passes all these tests but happens to be more on the masculine side psychologically - what does that have to do with her suitability to compete with other females? If sexual orientation or gender identity becomes a deciding factor to compete in international sport, I think sporting is going to become a very complicated and difficult business indeed - with hulky he-men and super-model she-women on the racing track. And all the rest on the side-lines as spectators not fitting into either of the two categories.

If there is a psychological problem here - it is with the mindset of modern society. It seems people have the impression that a "man" who transitions to become physically a woman are always men in their perception. They see trans women as impostors, wannabe's, and NOT AS WOMEN. They will still refer to a trans woman as "he", a "he-she" or worse yet, "it". They cannot grasp the fact that gender is what a person is in terms of personality, mind and spirit - not just body. The body and its appearance can always be changed to suit the mind - the mind is what it is.

This misconception is rampant among rad-fems who actually despise trans women and trans men because they happen to blur the gender specific lines. They hate women who transition to become male because they "betray" womanhood - and they see trans women as "invaders", "pretenders" and hateful competitors, who put on an act and somehow "insult" womanhood.

The root of all this unhappiness and friction? IGNORANCE.

Come on, it wasn't all that long ago that a transsexual female faced a similar outcry when she attempted to enter an international woman's Golf championship. And after all the hoo-hah, outcry, transphobic slurs and insults and demands for documentary proof died down - she was allowed to enter the contest anyway - and failed to even qualify for the final competition.

So much for having ever been male being an "advantage". I wonder how many people ate humble-pie after their claims that her "residual male-ness" would be an unfair advantage over the cis-gender players blew up in their faces?

Last year there was an outcry in South Africa when a post-op woman entered a beauty pageant. It was splashed all over the newspapers just like Watergate - all scandal and outrage. Insulting headlines which caused hurt and injury to the trans community were posted everywhere, accompanied by hateful remarks in media and online forums. How dare a "MAN" try to enter a female contest? Granted, she was not as beautiful as the majority of the cis-gender girls in the contest, and she didn't make it past the initial selection - but I certainly admire her courage in being willing to try. Yet as a woman, was she not entitled to?

I suppose the ONE good thing that comes out of such issues is that the increased media attention sheds more light on the medical facts surrounding the issue of transgender - and even gender. It is a morbid fact that people like to see the discomfort of others, squirming under the microscope, but at least while doing so, they may pick up some education. Aside from her obvious athletic skills, with which she has so far won 3 medals at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin - for not only herself, but for her country - and intentionally or not, she has furthered the cause of tolerance, increased awareness of transgender issues and pushed back the limits of ignorance if only a little more.

I could only imagine the shame, degradation, embarrassment and hurt Caster Semenya must be feeling. Many times have I had my gender and sexuality called into question - but never quite so publicly. And yes, when people call you "he" to your face when you are a woman, it is hurtful and frustrating. When people point at your characteristics and look for things that will prove their prejudice, it is humiliating and intimidating. Caster went to Berlin to represent her country, to do us proud and to bring honor to her name, her family, and her nation. And for that, Caster deserves our sympathy, support, admiration and praise. Regardless of how tests turn out, she deserves a welcome of note.

How this issue is resolved and handled will help in part determine how future generations - I feel tempted to say "gender-ations" - will handle things. How will a trans-athlete be welcomed in the sporting arena in future? Will they be accepted as equals? Or will they be turned away and made out to be "not male enough", or "too masculine"? Will they create a separate class of competitors which they will no doubt give the insulting label "separate but equal" as they try to do with civil unions v/s marriage? This sort of trial is what tries society's soul and puts the value of our humanity to the test.

It is not simply Caster's humanity that is on trial - but ours.

1 comment:

  1. I'd appreciate any comments you may have on the following article I wrote:

    http://www.xtra.ca/public/national/policing_caster_semenyas_gender-7343.aspx

    ReplyDelete