Promises and lies: Running, and running for office

When it comes to sex and gender, the measures to do things right are there but they still come from within established patriarchal structures, which needs to change. Just ask Caster Semenya.

“When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?” – Anne Leckie 

At present, matters of sex and gender remain complicated and topical issues, locally and internationally, which are trending for multiple reasons. One of these is the unrelenting (Western) gaze that celebrated athlete Caster Semenya has had to endure. 

Another reason, as Carl Collison discussed in an article in April, is that the three major political parties – the ANC, DA and EFF – made a point of including queer politics in their election manifestos. These manifestos continue to matter in the post-election climate as they allow us to hold these parties to account on the basis of their promises and claims.

Before discussing these, though, a clarification: sex does not refer to the sexual act here, although there is always room for that to be debated. Rather, sex indicates the biological and physiological (or anatomical) identification of a person, while gender refers to the historical, social, cultural and political construction of identity. 

The case against Caster

Earlier this year, as many know, middle-distance athlete Semenya lost her case against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which wanted to force women with naturally higher testosterone levels to take drugs to artificially lower them. This rule would have meant that “hyperandrogenic” athletes, like Semenya, would be allowed to compete only if they agreed to medicate themselves. 

This would also have meant that Semenya’s race on 3 May this year would have been the last she completed without medicating. She won the 800m race at the Doha Diamond League in 1:54.98. 

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The Swiss Federal Supreme Court, however, temporarily suspended the ruling issued by the Court of Arbitration for Sport which meant that Semenya can run without having to take medication. After clearing that hurdle, she faced another one when Moroccan Athletics Federation president Abdeslam Ahizoune did not allow her to participate in the 800m race in Rabat. She was consequently allowed to compete in the Stanford leg of the Diamond League competition, where she won once again. 

A number of aspects about this case are curious. The first is that professional athletes, by definition, are people who push themselves to the limits of human capacity. Most “ordinary” people do not look like athletes, nor are they able to perform like them. Furthermore, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of sex and entrenches once more what is known as the sex binary, which forces people into either the male or female category and the stereotypes that accompany them.

However, there is much debate about the oversimplification of this binary, as studies have shown that our ideas about biological “facts” and their determining power in terms of sex are not quite as clear-cut as is often assumed. 

People vary greatly in their individual make-up of chromosomes, gonads, genitalia, hormones and internal reproductive structures. It is reasonable to assume that many female athletes have higher than what is assumed to be “usual” testosterone levels and this may become starkly evident when female athletes are submitted to the IAAF’s hormone level tests. Female athletes now have to have less than 5 nanomoles of testosterone per litre (nmol/L) to compete in certain events.

Here the second issue raises its ugly head: the IAAF, which has always had stringent anti-doping rules, is now enforcing doping in the case of Semenya. It is more than a little cutting that Semenya’s silver medal in the 2012 Olympics was upgraded to gold when the Russian athlete, Mariya Savinova-Farnosova, was disqualified for doping.

The oppression of black women’s bodies

One cannot help but think of Sarah Baartman, the South African KhoiSan woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in London and later in Paris. Such objectification of women, especially black women, has a long history associated with the “primitive” and “oversexualised” body, further dehumanised by the Western gaze. Semenya, like Baartman, has been subjected to this gaze, as well as “gender verification” and other related tests, some without her consent.

Readers may remember that Henry Taylor, the man who took Sarah Baartman to France, sold her to an animal trainer who intensified her exhibiting conditions. Additionally, Baartman was used to reify racial-colonial typologies and justify early eugenics “science”. This pseudoscience developed clear racial, gendered and ableist dimensions from the beginning, with ideas about what bodies “should be” to be considered “normal”.

There was, for example, an increased tendency in the United States, Europe and Australia to sterilise people who were seen as mentally “abnormal”, as it was believed that their offspring would aid the moral decline of society and enfeeble the (white) race. 

One has to wonder whether the testosterone levels of a white woman would have caused such a furore? And would Semenya’s testosterone levels have mattered to anyone if she consistently came second or third? 

We know, at any rate, that genetic variation would probably have been praised had she been a man, as in the case of swimmer Michael Phelps, whose double-jointed ankles gave him a particularly powerful dolphin kick, while his double-jointed elbows allowed him to increase his downward thrust. To date, Phelps is still the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Political support and the meaning of manifestos

To its credit, the ANC has supported Semenya from the start. Minister of Sport and Recreation Tokozile Xasa said “the South African government” has “always maintained that these regulations trample on the human rights and dignity of Caster Semenya and other women athletes”. Nevertheless, what does the party’s manifesto reveal about its commitment to gender-based issues?

In the ANC’s manifesto, it states that the “African National Congress is a broad movement of the people with the historic mission to build a united and democratic South Africa that is non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous”. It goes on to say that the party will address gender-based violence by equipping the police and courts to support survivors. The ANC’s implementation plan is, however, vague at the best of moments: “Introduce laws to combat hate crimes against people based on their race, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation or albinism.” 

We already have many of these laws, that’s not the problem. The issue at stake here is that they aren’t enforced, in part because of a history of corruption that has plagued the police service and the courts in recent times. So when the manifesto states that the ANC has “a proud history of championing the cause for gender equality, the rights of people with disability and the LGBTQI+ community”, readers may agree as the Constitution certainly does promote these matters. 

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What is odd is that the ANC does not address the fact that South Africa has vested interests in a hypermasculine culture. Nor does it address the legacy of what such a hypermasculine culture has allowed its leaders to do and get away with, former president Jacob Zuma’s alleged rape case being a case in point.

The DA and EFF have opted for a more robust message. Like the ANC, they target the criminal justice system and reporting structures, as well as victim support and rehabilitation. However, the DA distinguishes itself by addressing femicide, the registering of sex offenders, creating “safe and non-discriminative environments and ensuring government makes opportunities for dialogues on identities and sexuality”. The party even targets corrective rape and “the sexual assault and murder of sex workers”.  

But the glossy manifesto and all its promises elide the fact that even if these measures are implemented, they would still be from within firmly established patriarchal structures. Until these structures are addressed, these promises amount to little more than furniture being moved around in a room without addressing the fact that the room lacks structural integrity. 

The EFF lists similar issues, devoting three pages of their manifesto to “Gender, Women and LGBTQI”. It is noteworthy, though, that party leader Julius Malema performs an extremely normative gender role in presenting himself as the “son of the soil”. 

While he and other gender-conforming politicians are “allowed” to “naturally” perform their genders in private and public spheres, gender-nonconforming and atypical gendered people, such as Semenya, will continue to be on public display, an attraction for the freak show of the powers that be. 

Beyond the ballot

The ballots now cast and the players in position, only time will tell if the promises made in the run-up to the national elections will be reflected in reality. What the manifestos reveal, at any rate, are a complex mix of tapping into contemporary debates, pink-washing, some commitment to reform, general election soothsaying and reasons unknown besides. 

The manifestos are important, though, as party leaders should be held accountable for the promises and lies they contain. 

Similarly, the IAAF should be held accountable for the continuous and dehumanising Semenya witch-hunt while someone like Phelps is praised for his double-jointed anomalies. If Semenya is forced to take medication, surely there should be a limit on, for example, a swimmer’s wingspan? 

It opens up complicated and difficult questions for the entire realm of sport and reveals politics that speak to wider societal issues and violations of human rights.

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