I saw this magazine cover shot of Caster Semenya yesterday and began crying, no I’d say nearly sobbing. Over at Sociological Images there is some thoughtful writing about this magazine cover around the idea of gender as performance and of course that is the obvious statement of this photo.
But what I really was thinking about was this 18-year-old person, embodying world championship athleticism as a female, as a black person, and as an African continent citizen becoming the public spectacle in the binary gender war waged on every adolescent as they come of age in a word filled with rigid gender boundaries.
I thought about the multiple messages that I see coming from the public scrutiny and potential destruction of her career: the post victory questions and then ‘proof’ of her sexed inauthenticity, the strongly asserted suggestion that biological sex predetermines gender, the complete dehumanizing of intersexed people into a space of neither this nor that, the suggestion that both black and Global South people must always willingly submit to inspection for authentication, and finally that female athleticism at its peak is a form of sex and gender treason.
And just as this flood of ideas was running through my mind, I thought about the media gorging young girls and boys I spent time with during the last school year. For I spent the last school year doing research in which I was listening, watching, and learning about how gender and sexuality are policed in a middle school setting. In 10 words or less, I was tracking educational practices around adolescent sexual harassment for my dissertation. And of course there was no shortage of what my colleagues would call rich data.
And as I looked at that magazine cover, and then back at this athlete upon her return to South Africa following her global victory I felt a thousand tiny deaths and I cried. Not because I have any way of knowing the personal impact of these moments and transitions upon Semenya. But rather because, to watch the public story, it appears she found it necessary to be transformed into a femme in order to preserve any possibility of human status or more simply perhaps any possibility of a professional future in the one arena that has defined her 18 year long life.
I thought about how dangerous her gender, racial, and national continental transgression of record breaking victory had been made for all of the worlds children. But it was the gender danger that really stood out for me in thinking about the children I came to know last year.
For I spent much time last year listening to girls and boys who were self and peer identified ‘tomboys’ and more often peer identified ‘sissies’. I listened to young tomboys talk about sometimes trying to fit in; trying to dress like a girl, trying to act like a girl, trying to be ‘girlie’ but hating it, hating themselves when they did it, and considering that act itself disgusting.
Their words often suggesting their body defied them with its persistent gender difference, “I can’t help it, I just look like a guy.” While at the same time they often expressed disdain for themselves for standing out as gender deviant. Their own words often justifying the behavior of their persecutors and of the school officials who stood by as they were daily objects of ridicule and harassment. “They can’t do anything about it, it’s just the way I am and it bugs people.”
For boys the gender transgression was of course that of being feminine, often marked by talking with their hands, wearing ‘girl cloths’, walking a certain way, looking at people a certain way, oh the many signals that set off a triggering cascade of violence toward them. And again they expressed a sense of self clearly located within these mannerisms that was both male and not male, “I’m just not like other guys. ” And frequently these young men had elaborate daily practices of public avoidance; they hid in bathrooms, they snuck down the streets to school, they waited until after the bell to enter the hallways, the did not speak in class, they did what they could to be invisible.
And all the while, as these young girls and boys were negotiating a gender performance that they could live in, they were harassed, taunted, touched, laughed at, shamed by both peers and adults, and in every way had their personhood invaded by their peers. Their back packs, hats, lockers, lunches, chairs, desks, along with of course their bodies, were open to the daily personal assault.
And at the same time, in the midst of all this ‘bullying’ ugliness, I was regularly surprised by the self centered optimism of these children. During discussions many of them suggested there were merely a few years from the end of this gendered ridicule. What they expressed was a belief that their persecution was the result of their peers immaturity which they assumed would disappear soon… perhaps next year, when they enter high school, or in a few years when they are out of school.
These kids saw this as a phenoma isolated to middle school, which not surprisingly is also what many educators have suggested. And of course once you suggest that, claim that it is simply in the nature of adolescents to gender police one another, you have effectively naturalized the abuse so that the faculty and the community can absolve themselves from addressing, directing or protecting everyone.
And here I come full circle to Semenya, for she is no emerging adolescent, and neither are those who have devoured and redefined her gender. No one can claim that it is ‘adolescent immaturity’ driving the IAAF, the IOC, the countries in competition against her, or the media in their campaign to get to the ‘truth’ about her gender.
I would even argue that, as a world champion athlete in a world obsessed with athleticism and competition, she achieved the pinnacle of what is seen as human perfection prior to the public attack and ultimate destruction of her gender identity. And I feel that there can be no doubt to the gender non-conforming girl or boy watching this story, this young woman was destroyed as who she was and because of our deep and abiding respect for sex and gender binaries she was left in a land outside of humanity.
And finally with this magazine cover we can see that yes she has been rebuilt to accomodate our needs. And shamelessly, as the magazine claims, she was not rebuilt by her own design, but rather as the headline suggests, “We turn SA’s power girl into a glamor girl – and she loves it.”
I hope she does, I know the students I came to know and care about would not love being turned into anything at gun point.