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Caster Semenya: Gods and Monsters

Brenna Munro Published online: 23 Sep 2010.

To cite this article: Brenna Munro (2010) Caster Semenya: Gods and Monsters, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 11:4, 383-396, DOI: 10.1080/17533171.2010.511782


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Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies Vol. 11, No 4, October 2010, 383–396

and American Studies Vol. 11, No 4, October 2010, 383–396 Caster Semenya: Gods and Monsters Brenna

Caster Semenya: Gods and Monsters

Brenna Munro

Global sporting events are supposed to offer a United Nations-like model of egalitarian international cooperation, a literal level playing-field on which every nation alike can compete. They are thus, of course, an opportunity for individual nations to project power, win prestige, and build patriotic feeling. From Jesse Owens’ challenge to white supremacy at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to Zinedine Zidane’s captaining of a French team full of fellow immigrants to win the soccer World Cup in 1998, these contests have also changed people’s ideas about race and nation in unexpected ways, and on a grand scale. One could argue, however, that the winning of these competitions compensates for, and indeed obscures, real-world global inequality, and that their staging of exacting and scrupulous ‘‘fairness’’ in the judgment of physical achievement draws attention away from far more important modes of injustice. Sometimes, though, the disparities and conflicts of the ‘‘new world order’’ are made visible through sports—as is the case with the young South African runner Caster Semenya. The question of whether Semenya is or is not a woman has become a much-analyzed global media event, in which establishing ‘‘fairness’’ turns out to be rather complicated. From one point of view, the fact that Semenya’s body might be producing higher levels of testosterone than other women gives her an unfair athletic advantage. From another, it seems unjust to deny a teenager from a small African village a chance at success, especially when she was unaware of her own possible sex- variance. Indeed, women with ‘‘normal’’ levels of testosterone are capable of running faster than she has—spectacular as her recent win was, she has not yet broken the world record for the eight hundred meters—and most other intersex people with the particular condition she might have are not, after all, world-class runners. 1 More largely, this event calls into question how we define sex difference, and how we might make space in the world for people who do not fit neatly into our categories

Correspondence to: Brenna Munro, University of Miami, College of Arts and Sciences, 1252 Memorial Drive, Ashe Bldg, Rm 321, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. Email: bmunro@miami.edu

1 We do not know with full certainty whether Semenya has an intersex condition, or what kind, as I shall discuss later.

ISSN 1753-3171 (print)/ISSN 1543-1304 (online) 2010 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/17533171.2010.511782

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of both sex and gender, while simultaneously raising the matter of how the world imagines racial difference and African bodies today. At stake, too, is the way in which this event is shifting South Africa’s national imaginary, and, indeed, what that country’s current protective embrace of this vulnerable, appealing figure of black ‘‘female masculinity’’ might mean for other South Africans whose sex, gender and sexuality do not conform to social norms. On a more academic level, the Semenya affair also underlines the importance of intersectional analysis informed by queer theory within African studies. One cannot make sense of this spectacle without thinking about the afterlife of imperialism under globalization, the international politics of race, and how models of sex and gender normativity are produced and circulated in this context—and these forms of normativity are intimately linked with questions of sexuality. Discussions of contemporary Africa, then, need to attend to what we might call the postcolonial politics of stigma. African anxieties about sovereignty and survival have become entangled, to use Sarah Nuttall’s keyword, 2 with ideas about the body, sex, and sexuality. In an important essay, Jean Comaroff draws our attention to how ‘‘it is impossible to contemplate the shape of late modern history—in Africa and elsewhere—without the polymorphous presence of HIV/AIDS,’’ 3 and suggests that:

Across Africa

The spread of AIDS has spurred the vilification of homosexuality [

discourses of perversion and shame have been common [


]. It has also

licensed the policing of other forms of sexuality not securely under the control of normative authority, hence the demonization of independent women, immigrants, and youth. 4

AIDS, homosexuality, rape, and challenges to gender norms, while all bound up with stigma, are of course very different phenomena, embedded in a wide variety of social and historical contexts. The danger of linking these issues is that one will flatten out their differences, and indeed end up reinforcing a narrative of Africa as the tragic, hopeless scene of violent gender trouble. I am suggesting, however, that thinking these phenomena together, as well as in their different particularities, might yield new insights. To take a recent example, anti-gay laws that have been proposed in Uganda—which initially included the death penalty for HIV-positive ‘‘active homosexuals,’’ and harsh prison terms for people who fail to turn their gay relatives over to the authorities—not only represent the persecution of people perceived as gay or HIV-positive, but also constitute an alarming extension of government power over all Ugandans. This law is also, not incidentally, indicative of a strengthening relationship between right-wing evangelical US groups and African political elites, 5 even as leaders like Uganda’s President Museveni present homosexuality as a foreign import, crossing borders promiscuously like the AIDS virus itself— ‘‘I hear European

2 Nuttall, Entanglement . 3 Comaroff, ‘‘Beyond Bare Life,’’ 197. 4 Ibid., 202. 5 The Ugandan MP who sponsored the bill, David Bahati, is apparently a member of ‘‘the Family,’’ a secretive yet influential US-based Christian organization (see Bartholomew, ‘‘David Bahati’’); see also Alsop, ‘‘Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill,’’ for more details of American evangelical involvement with Uganda’s proposed law.

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Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 385

homosexuals are recruiting in Africa,’’ as he said this November. 6 This specter of European re -infiltration of Africa through the bodies of ‘‘recruited’’ gay Africans is an uncanny mirror image of the contemporary anti-immigration fever gripping Europe, in which Africans are imagined penetrating the walls of fortress Europe by falsely presenting themselves as in need of asylum. African churches are of course far from monolithic, and a leader in the Ugandan Anglican church, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, has condemned the proposed law, saying it would be ‘‘state-legislated genocide against a specific community of Ugandans, however few they may be.’’ 7 As Marc Epprecht points out: ‘‘Dissident, minority sexualities are not an irrelevant sideshow to the great dramas of underdevelopment and racial conflict in Africa.’’ 8 The struggle for freedom from sexualized stigma in contemporary Africa has become an important component of the larger fight for democracy and social justice—and against violence. South African history, in particular, can be read through a series of international sex/gender/sexuality scandals that seem to rebound upon one another, from the exhibiting of Sara Baartman, the ‘‘Hottentot Venus,’’ across Europe in the early 1800s, to God’s Step-Children, Sarah Gertrude Millin’s 1924 novel about the ‘‘sin’’ of miscegenation that was a best-seller in America, to Caster Semenya. Apartheid itself was enmeshed with histories of sexuality and stigma: it was built on an alliance between Anglo-South Africans and Afrikaners forged through early twentieth- century ‘‘Black Peril’’ panics about the sexual threat black men supposedly posed to white women, was driven by a phobic preoccupation with interracial sexual ‘‘mixing,’’ and was enforced through both endemic, unspoken sexual violence against black people, and a strict, indeed militarized, gender regime of whiteness. 9 Neville Hoad argues that Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism was driven in part by a hyper- awareness of this history, and the ‘‘sexual ideology of racism’’—the ways in which the colonial imagination figured Africa in terms of ‘‘deviant’’ bodies and ‘‘primitive’’ sexuality. 10 The post-apartheid period has been marked not only by AIDS and its disavowal but also by a much-discussed rape crisis, with media focus shifting from the infamous ‘‘baby-rape’’ case of 2001, to the 2005 rape trial of now-president Jacob Zuma—in which his accuser was an HIV-positive AIDS activist who identifies as a lesbian 11 —and, most recently, to the phenomenon of ‘‘corrective’’ rape of lesbians. 12

6 See Gyezaho ‘‘Musuveni Warns Against Homosexuality.’’ 7 See Ford and Pomfret, ‘‘Uganda Church Leader.’’ 8 Epprecht, Hungochani , 207. 9 Samuelson discusses ‘‘Black Peril’’ discourse in ‘‘The Rainbow Womb: Rape and Race in South African Fiction of the Transition.’’ In ‘‘Apartheid Thinking,’’ J.M. Coetzee makes the case that the intellectual architects of apartheid were producing a ‘‘mad’’ response to psychosexual dynamics, suggesting that ‘‘it did indeed flower out of self-interest and greed, but also out of desire, and the denial of desire’’ (164). See also Drewett’s discussion of the production of white masculinities and femininities through conscription and its attendant popular discourses during apartheid (Drewett, ‘‘Construction and Subversion’’). 10 Hoad, African Intimacies , xxi. 11 See Gifford, ‘‘Zuma Rape Case,’’ and Robins, ‘‘Sexual Politics.’’ 12 See Kelly, ‘‘Raped and Killed.’’

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As Deborah Posel puts it in her analysis of the production of a public discourse about sexual violence within South Africa, ‘‘the issue of rape had been thrust to the forefront of debates about the meaning of democracy and justice, and the manner of the new national subject.’’ 13 These assaults, compounding the social exclusion of their victims, then re-stigmatize South Africa itself when they get reported in the global media. At the same time, South Africa’s post-apartheid democratic modernity is defined, both at home and abroad, by its promotion of human rights, including its ground-breaking constitutional enshrinement of gay rights. The targeting of women who look like Caster Semenya, then, can be read as a sign of the limits or failures of South African national liberation. The eighteen-year-old runner comes from a poor background in the rural province of Limpopo. She first received attention when she won the African Junior Athletics Championships in July of 2009, improving her previous competition time by seven seconds, and beating the record held by Zola Budd, the famous white apartheid-era runner. Her dramatic improvement over the course of a year raised suspicions of doping, even though she was benefiting from world-class coaching for the first time. 14 Her masculine appearance also sparked rumors, as it has throughout her life; and when she was in Berlin for the August 2009 World Championships in Athletics, she was forced to undergo sex ‘‘verification’’ procedures. 15 The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) leaked the fact that she was being tested, and the press reported on it three hours before the final; in a seemingly effortless performance, Semenya nonetheless won gold. In the furor that followed her win and the news of the sex verification test, South Africa rallied behind her, and she was greeted at Johannesburg airport by a huge crowd of fans, as well as by Winnie Madizika-Mandela and Jacob Zuma. As journalist Daniel Howden put it, ‘‘The ANC has been quick to pick up on popular anger at the perceived humiliation of the young South African by international athletics authorities.’’ The president of Athletics South Africa (ASA), Leonard Chuene, resigned in protest from the board of the IAAF, and expressed his outrage publicly:

‘‘I’m fuming. This girl has been castigated from day one, based on what?’’ Chuene said. ‘‘There’s no scientific evidence. You can’t say somebody’s child is not a girl. You denounce my child as a boy when she’s a girl? If you did that to my child, I’d shoot you.’’ 16

However, the South African Mail and Guardian subsequently broke the story that Chuene had been instructed by the IAAF to have Semenya’s sex tested before the World Championships, had done so without explaining to her what was going on, and had then decided to send her to Berlin even though the results were

13 Posel, ‘‘‘Baby Rape,’’’ 22. See also Graham’s discussion of rape discourse in nationalist terms and in the global media (‘‘Save Us All’’). 14 McRae (‘‘Being Caster Semenya’’) describes Semenya’s coach thus: ‘‘A student activist in the seminal June 1976 Soweto school riots which did so much to rock apartheid, Seme is one of just a very few South Africans to have reached the IAAF’s highest level five in coaching.’’ 15 See Dixon, ‘‘Runner Caster Semenya.’’ 16 Ibid.

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Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 387

‘‘not good.’’ 17 In the wake of this revelation, Chuene resigned from the ASA. In September, the Australian Daily Telegraph reported that the results of the IAAF sex testing in Berlin indicated that Semenya did not have ovaries or a uterus; ‘‘Semenya was born with undescended testes, the report said, which provided her with three times the amount of testosterone present in an average female.’’ 18 However, the IAAF responded by saying that the Daily Telegraph claims about the testing should be ‘‘treated with caution.’’ 19 In November, the IAAF announced, in a belated display of diplomatic skill, that Semenya had been found innocent of any wrong-doing and would be allowed to keep her medals, and that the results of the tests would be kept private. After eleven months of uncertainty about whether she would be allowed to take part in future races, the IAFF issued a brief announcement in July 2010 that Semenya can now compete, and that her medical details will remain confidential; meanwhile, rumors circulate that she has been getting hormone ‘‘therapy.’’ 20 Female athletes inhabit impossible bodies, where our desire for the ideal—the Olympian, the record-breaking—comes up against our drive to normalize. The physically exceptional is always in danger of being seen as abnormal, deviant, or monstrous. It seems strangely appropriate that Caster would have a close namesake in the Castor of Greek myth, the mortal half-twin of a God. All world-class athletes have queerly God-like bodies, strange genetic gifts; but women whose bodies achieve a strength, swiftness, agility, hardness, and bulk that we traditionally associate with the masculine—long-distance runners who no longer menstruate, gymnasts who have never developed breasts—are under particular pressure to visually and performatively re-feminize themselves, even as their bodily transformations are required. In the case of Semenya, both her gender performance and her sex are under scrutiny. In modern sports, the border between male and female is inspected and policed in a quite literal sense, and Semenya is accused of being an illegal immigrant across that border. It is international sports itself, though, that has smuggled a particular set of ideas about sex differences around the world, under the guise of the universal, the natural, and the scientific. Some of those ideas are: there are only two sexes; those two sexes are so different as to be almost separate species; and men will always beat women in physical contest, so it would be ‘‘unsporting’’ to have them compete together. The categories of ‘‘male’’ and ‘‘female’’ are, however, as man-made as the decathlon and the nation-state. Modern Western medicine has attempted to ‘‘correct,’’ and therefore remove from social existence, bodies that do not conform to the gender binary, operating on babies with ambiguous genitalia, usually without the knowledge or consent of the parents. 21 In the 1990s, intersex activists emerged—as if out of nowhere—claiming their right to decide both the sex of their bodies and their gender identities for

17 See Sindane, ‘‘Semenya Saga.’’ 18 Levy, ‘‘Either/Or,’’ scr 2. 19 Smith, ‘‘Caster Semenya ‘Hermaphrodite Claim.’’’ 20 Goldman and Block, ‘‘Runner Semenya Cleared,’’ scr 1. 21 See Cheryl Chase’s ground-breaking ‘‘Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism,’’ in which, among other things, she points out the hypocrisy of Western disapproval of

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themselves; but the scandal over Semenya is bringing the question of intersexuality to the attention of a mass audience for the first time. The visibility of sex difference, in particular, has been thrown into question for the global audience. Semenya looks somewhat masculine, but her genitalia apparently look female—inspections of her anatomy usually satisfied her doubters in the past, as many reporters have mentioned. 22 However, modern sex testing, involving a set of variables that includes internal organs, hormonal levels, and chromosomes, is strangely invisible, both of the body and yet disembodied. Moreover, the science of sex is, it turns out, in crisis. Anne Fausto-Sterling begins her ground-breaking Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) with the question of sex-testing in sports, pointing out that in 1968:

The [International Olympic Committee] IOC decided to make use of the modern

‘‘scientific’’ chromosome test. The problem, though, is that this test, and the more sophisticated polymerase chain reaction to detect small regions of DNA associated with testes development that the IOC uses today, cannot do the work the IOC


What bodily signals and functions we define as male and female come already

entangled in our ideas about gender [

determining sex [ guidelines. 23

]. Choosing which criteria to use in

] are social decisions for which scientists can offer no absolute

wants it to do. A body’s sex is simply too complex. There is no either/or [












Northwestern University, put it this way in relation to the Semenya affair:

This is not a solvable problem [

marker we can use?’’ No. We couldn’t then and we can’t now, and science is making it more difficult and not less, because it ends up showing us how much blending there is and how many nuances, and it becomes impossible to point to one thing, or even a set of things, and say that’s what it means to be male. 24

]. People always press me: ‘‘Isn’t there one

The verification process adopted by the IAAF is indicative of the complex, contradictory, and often inconclusive nature of current scientific approaches to ‘‘knowing’’ sex. Here is Judith Butler’s take on their process:

If we consider that this act of ‘‘sex determination’’ was supposed to be collaboratively arrived at by a panel that included ‘‘a gynecologist, an

endocrinologist, a psychologist and an expert on gender’’ [

assumption is that cultural and psychological factors are part of sex-determination, and that not one of these ‘‘experts’’ could come up with a definitive finding on his

or her own [

is decided by consensus and, conversely, where there is no consensus, there is no determination of sex. Is this not a presumption that sex is a social negotiation of some kind? And are we, in fact, witnessing in this case a massive effort to socially

] then the

]. This co-operative venture suggests as well that sex-determination

( footnote continued ) African FGM (female genital mutilation) practices in light of the surgery routinely performed on intersex infants. 22 Levy, ‘‘Either/Or,’’ scr. 2. 23 Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body, 3–5. 24 Levy, ‘‘Either/Or,’’ scr. 6.

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Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 389


deliberations? 25














In her commentary, Butler also made a humane suggestion about how sporting institutions might respond quite differently to this definitional crisis:

Rather than try and find out what sex Semenya or anyone else really ‘‘is,’’ why

don’t we think instead about standards for participation under gender categories

that have the aim of being both egalitarian and inclusive? Only then might we [ open sports to the complexly constituted species of human animal to which we belong. 26

The Semenya affair indeed prompted the IOC to hold a special conference to review their policies on gender in January 2010. This gathering of experts did not, of course, manage to come up with a foolproof ‘‘sex test’’; they concluded that ‘‘rules should be put in place for determining an athlete’s eligibility to compete on a case- by-case basis—but they did not indicate what those rules should be.’’ 27 They did, however, have some recommendations for what should be done about athletes who are deemed to be intersex:

Athletes who identify themselves as female but have medical disorders that give

them masculine characteristics should have their disorders diagnosed and treated


]. ‘‘Those who agree to be treated will be permitted to participate,’’ said Dr Maria New, a panel participant and an expert on sexual development disorders. ‘‘Those who do not agree to be treated on a case-by-case basis will not be permitted.’’ 28

‘‘Treatment’’ is rather vaguely defined here, and seems to go beyond the kinds of medical intervention that some intersex people do, in fact, need in order to avoid health problems: one of the ‘‘treatments’’ they seem to be talking about, for example, is lowering athletes’ testosterone levels. Far from ‘‘opening sports to the complexly constituted species of human animal to which we belong,’’ this set of recommenda- tions both instantiates intersex conditions as ‘‘disorders,’’ and forces intersex athletes to modify their bodies, to reshape their sex, in order to compete. 29


25 Butler, ‘‘Wise Distinctions,’’ scr. 1. 26 Ibid., scr. 1. 27 Kolata, ‘‘IOC Panel Calls for Treatment.’’ 28 Ibid. Dr New is a controversial figure, because of her involvement with procedures administering dexamethasone to pregnant women who might give birth to girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) in order to prevent their fetuses from developing genitalia that do not look ‘‘normal.’’ In other words, this is an attempt to ‘‘treat’’ something that is a cosmetic issue, not a health risk. Meanwhile, ‘‘children exposed to dexamethasone have been shown to be at higher risk for problems with working memory, with verbal processing, and with anxiety.’’ See Alice Dreger’s website raising awareness about New’s experiments and the lack of FDA oversight, Fetaldex.org. 29 There has been much recent debate about whether intersexuality should be understood as a ‘‘disorder’’ rather than an identity—many people would rather be understood as women or men with a particular physical condition, rather than as ‘‘being’’ intersex, and are calling for the use of the phrase ‘‘disorders of sex development.’’ See Ellen K. Feder’s ‘‘Imperatives of Normality: From ‘Intersex’ to ‘Disorders of Sex Development.’’’ I think there is something of a double bind at work here; there is a form of stigma produced by becoming a legible ‘‘minority,’’ but the pathologizing effect of the language of ‘‘disorders’’ isn’t necessarily an

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As a ‘‘social negotiation’’ that includes the global media, Semenya’s embodiment

and its interpretations cannot be understood without thinking about the signification of her race. The legacy of imperialism and slavery, and how it has shaped the figuration of black women, seems to be being re-pixelated, if you will, through the global media circus over Semenya. The Semenya affair coincided uncannily with the ‘‘viral’’ internet image of Michelle Obama PhotoShopped with a monkey’s face that had been causing controversy; 30 a black woman hailed as a global icon of conventional femininity and grace, let alone a woman whose sex is in question, is persistently defaced by the racist gaze. For South Africans, the questioning of Semenya’s sex not only brings to mind apartheid’s categorizations of people into racial groups 31 —a traumatic and chaotic process that involved the inspection of people’s bodies on a nationwide scale—but calls up the life-story of Sara Baartman, a chapter of imperial history that has been central to post-apartheid nationalist discourse. Baartman was a Khoisan woman who was taken from Cape Town to Europe in 1810, where she became a traveling human exhibit of racial and sexual difference. She ended up in France, becoming the object of pseudo-scientific study, and as Meg

Samuelson puts it, she was ‘‘inscribed [

womanhood in metropolitan fantasies: as fundamentally primitive and lascivious.’’ 32 After she died, her sexual organs and her brain were displayed in the Muse´e de L’Homme in Paris until 1974. Baartman has been invoked in a host of cultural productions since the 1990s , and was the subject of a government campaign to have her remains returned to South Africa. At her nationally televised funeral in 2002, then-President Mbeki delivered the speech, and declared her burial place a national heritage site. As Janell Hobson puts it in her discussion of Baartman and how she has signified in the Western imagination:

Not only did this treatment of Baartman’s private parts usher in pseudo-race science, which attempts to locate racial characteristics within the racial body, but it also shaped the ways in which black female bodies are viewed: with an emphasis on the rear end as a signifier of deviant sexuality. As a result, such associations of black female sexuality with animalistic characteristics emerge not just in pseudo-scientific studies of human anatomy but also in popular culture. 33

] as the iconic figure of African


located in its literal excess, a specifically sexual excess that placed her body outside the boundaries of the ‘normal’ female.’’ 34 In Baartman’s case, the generous shape of her buttocks were at issue; with Semenya, it is a supposed ‘‘excess’’ of testosterone that is

Siobhan Somerville notes that ‘‘the racial difference of the African body

( footnote continued ) easy route to ‘‘normalization’’ either—particularly when connected with the highly charged issue of sex and gender. 30 See Sweney, ‘‘Michelle Obama ‘Racist’ Picture.’’ 31 As Levy points out, ‘‘Either/Or,’’ scr. 3. 32 Samuelson, Remembering the Nation , 86. 33 Hobson, Venus in the Dark , 46 . 34 Somerville, Queering the Color Line , 26.

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Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 391

the ‘‘problem.’’ The inspection of Semenya’s body seems driven in part, then, by a familiar prurient/Enlightenment will-to-know; it was clear from the start, after all, that this was not a case of cheating. The small Limpopo village from which she so recently came is not a likely scene for clandestine sex-change operations. As her father put it:

‘‘I don’t even know how they do this gender testing

I don’t know what a

chromosome is. This is all very painful for us, we live by simple rules in our culture. We do not intrude. This is not natural. To go through such an unusual thing must be very hard for Caster.’’ 35

What is ‘‘not natural,’’ in Jacob Semenya’s view, is not the body that defies the gender binary, but ‘‘intruding’’ on whatever body one is born with. If the postoperative transsexual body is a postmodern body, as Susan Stryker suggests, perhaps the intersex body is a pre-modern body. 36 Semenya seems so sympathetic to Western audiences, in part, because she is the opposite of the ‘‘knowing’’ modern subject—innocent, for example, of the arts of camouflage of conventional femininity. That many spectators seem to be responding to her public ordeal with concern, rather than mockery, is a relief; but perhaps there is also a way in which this idea of Semenya as ‘‘innocent’’ or ‘‘pre-modern’’ conveniently reinforces a post-imperial sense of the ‘‘natural’’ global order: that the untamed, ‘‘simple’’ African body is one that has not yet been streamlined into ‘‘modern’’ norms, that Africa is therefore both before and outside. The interpretations of Semenya’s sex, gender and embodiment made by South African politicians, on the other hand, are primarily inspired by an anti-imperial, nationalist politics. As Chuene put it, ‘‘We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and defeat our children.’’ 37 In the immediate aftermath of the race, the ANC spokesperson, Brian Sokutu, defended Semenya in what we might call feminist- nationalist terms:

‘‘Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build and IAAF should

know better. We condemn the motives of those who have made it their business to question her gender due to her physique and running style. Such comments can only serve to portray women as being weak,’’ Sokutu said. ‘‘Not only has 18-year-

old Caster made her family proud but the entire country [

]. Her determination

to succeed in becoming a world-renowned athlete has made Caster a role model for young athletes.’’ 38

Jacob Zuma echoed these sentiments when he declared that Semenya ‘‘showcased women’s achievement, power and strength,’’ and had ‘‘reminded the world of the importance of the rights to human dignity and privacy.’’ 39 There is something extremely heartening about hearing government officials—and indeed the local

35 Malone, Miller, and Maclean, ‘‘She Wouldn’t Wear Dresses.’’ 36 Stryker, ‘‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges,’’ 8. 37 See Howden, ‘‘South Africa versus the World.’’ 38 See ‘‘ANC Condemns Semenya Gender Row.’’ 39 See Gevisser, ‘‘South African Angst.’’

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community Semenya comes from—defending her right to be recognized as the gender she understands herself to be, regardless of her bodily make-up, and indeed her right to perform ‘‘being a woman’’ in unconventional ways. It is worth pointing out, too, that South Africa is unusual for standing by an athlete found to be ‘‘too’’ masculine by an international sporting body; other women in a similar position have in the past been shamefully abandoned. 40 However, this approach does not leave much room for alternative identities or embodiments—whether intersex, transgen- der, or transsexual—that complicate the male/female binary. The remarks of the current president of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, make this painfully clear:

‘‘Hermaphrodite, what is that? Somebody tell me, what is hermaphrodite in Pedi? There’s no such thing, hermaphrodite, in Pedi. So don’t impose your hermaphrodite concepts on us.’’ 41 As Tavia Nyong’o puts it:

Is it her defenders who are perhaps embarrassed and ashamed by her exuberant

] who is to say

that her ‘‘profoundest sense of self’’ lies with being treated and considered ‘‘like a

embodiment, more than her? [

]. Young though she may be [

girl?’’ [

]. Semenya’s defenders are clearly dealing with a gender panic of their

own [

]. In the name of protecting African femininity from a western, scientific

gaze, Semenya’s defenders also disguise their own patriarchal investment in naming

and controlling this gender excess. 42

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has been appointed head of the official governmental Task Team assigned to protect Semenya (!) said, in matriarchal contrast: ‘‘There is nothing wrong with being a hermaphrodite. It is God’s creation. She is God’s child. She did not make herself. God decided to make her that way and that can’t be held against her.’’ 43 Of course, while Madikizela-Mandela is de-stigmatizing intersexuality here, she is doing so by presenting Semenya as an innocent ‘‘child,’’ within a family romance that also (re)casts her as ‘‘mother of the nation.’’ Semenya is thus framed very differently from, say, a butch South African lesbian—or an HIV-positive sex worker. Of course the question of sexuality cannot be conflated with that of gender identity, just as being intersex is not the same as being transsexual; however, sexuality is more often than not read through gender performance. Semenya’s gender presentation thus summons up the figure of the lesbian, regardless of what her own sexual orientation might be. 44

40 Fausto-Sterling describes how badly the Spanish government and public treated hurdler Maria Patino when she failed a sex test in 1985 ( Sexing the Body , 1–2); more recently, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games after being found to have androgen insensitivity syndrome. The government of her state (Tamil Nadu) awarded her the equivalent of the prize money anyway, and after recovering from what she calls the ‘‘mental torture’’ of the experience, she has begun rebuilding her life as a coach (Singh, ‘‘India Athlete’’). 41 See Mohaloa and SAPA, ‘‘No Such Word.’’ 42 Nyong’o, ‘‘The Unforgiveable Transgression,’’ scr.1. 43 See ‘‘Winnie Mandela Calls on South Africa.’’ 44 While Semenya’s masculinity raises suspicions about her sexual orientation for some, for other spectators, her androgyny makes her sexless—a kind of black Joan of Arc (I would like to thank Senam Okudzeto for that analogy).

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Looking at photographs of Semenya brings to mind, for me, young lesbian South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s portraits of butch black women, a rich archive of female masculinities that charts a communal response to sexual violence and celebrates queer sexuality and embodiment. 45 Muholi’s work also reminds us that, as David Smith and Mark Gevisser have pointed out, the very week after Semenya’s race in Berlin, the men who raped and murdered the out butch lesbian Eudy Simelane in 2008 were on trial in South Africa. 46 Simelane played for the national women’s football team, and her sporting popularity may be the reason that her case made it to trial—other murders of lesbians have not, although they have provoked a great deal of local activism. 47 Winnie Mandela and Jacob Zuma, however, have not publicly decried these murders, nor the many more cases of ‘‘corrective’’ rape that have occurred over the last few years—these women do not, apparently, qualify as ‘‘daughters of the nation’’ in the way that Semenya does. 48 To use Meg Samuelson’s terminology, it is as if Semenya is being made to embody national unity, while the bodies that mirror hers are being ‘‘dis-remembered.’’ 49 Nonetheless, it is remarkable to see two such powerful political figures, who have been associated with homophobia in the past, aligning themselves in defense of this gender-queer girl—saying firmly that she has rights, that she belongs, and that she represents South Africa. 50 This response might not have been possible if it wasn’t for South Africa’s rich history of activism around sexuality, gender, and AIDS. Sports has provided some of South Africa’s most spectacular transformational moments; and perhaps this chance series of events, and this remarkable young person, will reactivate the generous, queer-friendly spirit of the early days of the ‘‘rainbow’’ nation.

45 Muholi has brought attention to the violent targeting of lesbians in her own township community and beyond through original research and her striking brand of ‘‘visual activism,’’ to use her term. Muholi’s work can be found here: http://www.michaelstevenson.com/contemporary/artists/muholi.htm. 46 See Smith’s ‘‘Caster Semenya Is a Hero’’ and Gevisser’s ‘‘Castigated and Celebrated.’’ 47 For example, a coalition of different gay, women’s rights, and antiviolence organizations started the ‘‘Campaign 07-07-07’’ in February 2008, in order to combat growing hate crimes. The campaign’s name commemorates the deaths of two women, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa, who were murdered in Soweto on that date. See ‘‘South Africa: 07-07-07 Campaign.’’ As Kelly (‘‘Raped and Killed’’) reports: ‘‘Despite more than 30 reported murders of lesbians in the last decade, Simelane’s trial has produced the first conviction, when one man who pleaded guilty to her rape and murder was jailed last month. On sentencing, the judge said that Simelane’s sexual orientation had ‘no significance’ in her killing.’’ 48 Kelly (‘‘Raped and Killed’’): ‘‘Research released last year by Triangle, a leading South African gay rights organization, revealed that a staggering 86% of black lesbians from the Western Cape said they lived in fear of sexual assault. The group says it is dealing with up to 10 new cases of ‘corrective rape’ every week. ‘What we’re seeing is a spike in the numbers of women coming to us having been raped and who have been told throughout the attack that being a lesbian was to blame for what was happening to them,’ said Vanessa Ludwig, the chief executive at Triangle.’’ 49 See Samuelson’s discussion of women, the nation, and Baartman in Remembering the Nation . 50 Madikizela-Mandela’s support of Semenya is paradoxical in light of her history of the strategic use of homophobic stigma. In 1991, she and her male entourage were accused of the kidnapping and assault of four youths, and the murder of the youngest of them. Her defense was to accuse the gay white priest who ran the group home the youths lived in of encouraging them to have sex with each other and of molesting them himself—she thus presented herself as rescuing and disciplining the young men. The well-known image of her supporters outside the court holding a placard declaring that ‘‘Homosex is not in black culture’’ finds an echo in the spectacle of Zuma’s trial fifteen years later, and his supporters’ vocal fury towards his accuser. See Rachel Holmes on Madikizela-Mandela’s trial (‘‘White Rapists’’).

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On a global level, Semenya’s vexed embodiment thus invokes multiple larger unfolding histories, even as it provokes a variety of potential shifts in global ideas about sex, race, and politics.


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