Semenya’s case - An Ugly Show of Gender Prejudice

The following is an opinion piece by Julius .K. Kaggwa, Director, Support Initiative for People with atypical sex Development (SIPD) Uganda, which is reproduced by IGLHRC by the author's permission.

I have been following the story of Semenya and the controversy that has arisen from her outstanding achievement at the world games simply because her athletic ability and appearance are too masculine for her to be a woman.

One of the greatly disturbing details is the irregularity in gender judgement by IAAF between the time Semenya registered for the games and the time of her win. Is it possible that Semenya looked more of a man than a woman after she won the gold medal than she did when she was entered into the games? Are chromosomal, hormonal, and gynaecological tests a standard “requirement” for participating in sports as a woman or a man? One would wonder which is a worse violation: – exclusion from event participation or denial of the gold medal on the basis of Semenya’s body type, yet none of the two compare to being forced to undergo humiliating invasive “gender verification” tests.

Even more disturbing is the implied gendering of performance in sports, particularly depicting women as having less sports competence and the suggested exclusion of intersex and gender non conforming individuals in mainstream sports participation. This unwarranted uproar around Semenya’s gender can only mean further isolation and discrimination of intersex and gender variant people and perhaps the introduction of patronizing ‘special’ sports events for people like us just like there is a sports category for the ‘physically disabled’. Even so, subjecting Semenya to humiliating, invasive non-consensual ‘gender verification’ tests just to satisfy IAAF’s stereotypical binary gender dichotomy, is committing both gender sadism and a major human rights violation against Semenya and against all intersex and gender variant individuals in Africa.

As an intersex rights advocacy voice in Uganda, SIPD condemns both IAAF and The Guardian’s decision to turn Semenya’s physical appearance into an unnecessary gender identity controversy; and the conjecture that she perhaps is intersex and if so, then she needs surgery to be a ‘real’ woman.

Many athletes of every gender are muscular owing to the amount of physical exercise and nutritional specifications their bodies are subjected to. Several of these graced the line up at the world games and to single Semenya out of all of them shortly after a gold medal win appears pre-meditated and is outright discriminatory. What seems to be Semenya’s crime? Is it that Semenya’s body is more masculine than is socially desirable for a woman? Is it that her athletic ability matches that of men? Or is it that she is suspected to be intersex? The charge against Semenya is simply that she is a human being whose gender presentation is traditionally non conforming. Does she have a problem with it? Certainly not! But IAAF does and with this gesture, IAAF is encouraging gender violence and discriminatory treatment towards African gender variant people.

We condemn this gesture by both IAAF and “The Guardian” as racist, and offensive to African gender non conforming people and particularly intersex people. Having been born intersex in Africa, I know first hand how those desperate to justify social injustices against people like myself and Semenya who are different will either equate or compare us to every falsehood imaginable. How for example could a conversation between Semenya’s grandmother and a reporter negate Semenya’s identity as a woman? Scarier than this falsehood is the verdict Semenya awaits after the tests by the “experts”. Who can determine if she is a woman or a man except Semenya herself? And what if she is neither man nor woman? Because that too does exist! Which ‘expert’ will determine for me which side to stand on if God has crafted me uniquely in between or all-embracing? The plain question is why is diversity too painful to embrace? After all, diversity is a divine key characteristic of the universe.

Whilst male athletes undergo simple blood tests to detect the use of drugs, a young African woman has to be forced to undergo extremely invasive and traumatic tests to ‘detect’ her gender! This is not simply outrageous, it is a violation, it is wrong, and it is a direct attack on Semenya’s person and on all of us born with bodies that are not typical and we strongly contest it.