“Whoever died and appointed you gender police!”
TSHEPO RICKI KGOSITAU
From time immemorial, the human species has been drawn to gender purity: a clear line meant to define men from women (often with men vocalised before woman, mind you). This line confers ability plus privilege on the man and woman seen to be the fairer of the two, the latter denoting women as nothing but objects of men’s attraction that are to be seen and not heard.
I would like to spend some time discussing this gender purity line, as I call it, and how it is used to control and regulate women’s bodies. Listen to them create language for this segregation: there is a waiter (man) and waitress… ess … less; actor then actress, poet vs poetess, singer and songstress. This is the very language that affirms this gender purity line even in sporting disciplines, hence the IAAF vs Caster Semenya saga.
The need to police women’s bodies is so pervasive that sporting councils and committees have to resort to devising laws and regulations, even baseless and flawed medical findings to justify their arbitrary, discriminatory and violent behaviour towards women who do not conform to their set standards with courts of arbitration for sports taking decisions that affirm this violence towards elite women athletes – women who do not conform. The highest level of cognitive dissonance we have witnessed in recent year came when an entire court overtly came to the determination that there has been discriminatory practice by a particular body but found such discrimination justifiable. The point is that discrimination and that which is just cannot coexist. But then what do we expect when patriarchy is asked to call itself out?
At surface level, the new IAAF regulations on testosterone levels among certain women’s track and field events are based on incomprehensive and flawed scientific findings that have been stretched to justify the targeting of excellent black and brown athletes from the global south. The IAAF has based the regulations on a study done on 21 women’s track and field events to determine whether testosterone enhanced performance. Comparative analysis done across the three categories of testosterone levels in women athletes, taking the highest and lowest performance of those categories, showed the highest differences in the hammer throw and pole vault categories while on the lower end were three track fields, namely the 400m race, the 400m hurdles and the 800m race. Inspite of these findings showing little correlation between testosterone (T) and performance in these track fields which Caster Semenya is a lead on, the IAAF chose to impose these regulations on the tracks that Caster is on, adding as well the 1500m and mile which were not even analysed in the study upon which they premised these regulations.
When you analyse the categories that the IAAF has focused on, it is the middle-distance running events in which women from the global south have dominated for years. White supremacy is a manifestation of patriarchal control which is seen in world sport as seen with through IAAF claiming to equal the playing field by imposing racialised and medically hazardous regulations on women’s bodies, particularly women who do not conform to this gender purity line. Most of these women who defy this purity line have been shown to be from Africa and Asia, which some IAAF officials have as far back as 2012 indicated that these [intersex] women were a concern, given that a lot of them were mostly from these regions.
But is Caster male or female? This is a question premised on a very simplistic, narrow and binary understanding of human bodies and sex. For this, I need to explain that there are bodies born with a myriad of variations of male and female characteristics. Most Batswana have a recollection of the term ‘trasi,’ a colloquial for people who have both a penis and a vagina, which is false. The Intersex Society of North America defines “Intersex” as:
“… a general term used for a variety ofbodies in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male … a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types – a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum formed more like labia…a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of their cells have XX chromosomes and some of them having XY or a mix of XXY chromosomes…”
The fact is that nature does not have any determinations of where a male category starts and ends or where intersex starts and ends. We as humans impose these determinations for social control. Many people live and die without even knowing they were intersex while others will only find this out when attempting to conceive only to find that they do not have a uterus or ovaries. We now understand sex to be a spectrum of traits ranging from female on the one extreme to male on the other and an array of in between characteristics where intersex falls. Intersex is not a condition in need of correction or help; it is just a part of the diversity of human construct.
However, we continue to see the rewarding and justification for mutilation of intersex babies and adults’ bodies all under the guise of giving such persons a ‘normal’ life. There is no medical justification for the arbitrary surgical and medical interventions that are often prescribed at face value for what is seen to be abnormal or non-conforming bodies that cannot fit neatly on either side of the gender purity line. What we are certain about is that these surgeries and hormonal therapy forced on bodies that do not conform to the male or female dichotomy pose serious risk and repercussions to the health, wellbeing and dignity of intersex persons. This has been permitted from hospitals where 2-day old intersex babies are surgically operated on as a way of making them neatly male or female. This institutionalised intersex-phobia permeates most structural spaces. It is why we see the IAAF in this instance feeling justified forcing women like Caster Semenya to lower their T levels in order to compete in women sporting codes. Caster is a woman who identifies so but happens to have higher T levels than the typical woman. Be that as may be, she is a woman.
Others ask, does her high levels of T not give her an unfair advantage over other women athletes? Research is inconclusive on whether T does confer any significant advantages on women, including intersex women, yet the IAAF’s stance is premised on there being an added advantage that it deems unfair. However, T is not the only advantage we can speak of in sport, there being long limbs and height in basketball, length of arms and double-jointed ankles in certain swimmers, altitude training advantage for Kenyan long distance athletes, and stout bodies advantaging athletes in shotput, hammer throw and gymnastics. Debatable or not, what we can establish is that there are various bodies from particular regions around the world that confer certain traits that increase the probability of those athletes excelling above their counterparts, but we do not see regulations being devised to exclude them or prescriptions of medically unnecessary procedures to cut them to size in order to level the playing field.
Why then does it seem that Caster Semenya and all other elite women athletes (mostly black and brown) are being unfairly targeted here? Is this a case of intersex-phobia meets sexism meets racism? Is Caster and all other intersex athletes destined not to compete in international sporting events? Why have we not evolved to having Intersex or even Unisex track and field events as in other sporting disciplines? Do we remember what white supremacy, white masculinity, sexism and racism did to Serena Williams in 2018? Robbing her of a well-expected and deserved win of the US Open title? Do you remember how we lost Paul Morama (then Tshotlego Morama) who was Botswana’s gold medallist and world record holder paralympian because of this gender policing in sport back in 2007/2008? Where is Morama now? Do you know that Caster Semenya is contemplating leaving international athletics if her impending appeal on the IAAF regulations is not successful? Enough is enough. There is no beneficence in these IAAF regulations. It is all a normalised genocide and erasure of intersex bodies and evidence of sexual and bodily diversity in human, all because we want to maintain a gender purity line. But at what cost? How long shall we continue shouting the slogan #BlackGirlMagic but sit by and watch as one more excellent black woman is targeted and disadvantaged by these global patriarchal institutions and their gatekeepers? Whoever died and made you the gender police, anyway? Put on a queer eye for seeking answers to these questions.
About the Author:Tshepo Ricki Kgositau is a seasoned human rights advocate, researcher, trans personality, feminist, sexual & reproductive health rights specialist, Pan-Africanist, fashion designer, social entrepreneur, gender diversity & equity specialist, LGBTIQAP++ activist, queer theology scholar, motivational speaker and columnist. Ricki is a Motswana living and based in Cape Town working as the Executive Director of an iNGO called Accountability International, which hasother offices in Brussels-Belgium and Stockholm-Sweden working to hold various leaders accountable. Ricki is a mix of multiple intersecting identities that all influences her politic, perspectives and style of writing. Mrs.Kgositau-Kanza was a key litigant in a landmark case before the High Court seeking legal gender recognition that was concluded in 2017. Ricki is a Mandela-Washington Fellow of 2016 who did her residency at University of California – Berkley with the Goldman School of Public Policy. She has won a list of accolades in recognition of her body of work, some of the recent being the Feather Awards for Role Model of the Year and African Feather of the Year (both in 2017) and included on the #Awesome50 List of African LGBTIQA+ Activists & Allies in 2018.