Feminine masculinities, masculine femininities


Politicians, the public, family and friends have for days been expressing their unconditional support for “golden girl” Caster Semenya — and this would be fabulous if it were truly unconditional. But is it?

With a surprising disregard for Semenya’s nonconforming gender performance — after all, women in South Africa have been violated simply for wearing pants — the patriotic support she is receiving is based on clearly reinforcing her sex as female: “She is a woman”, “I bathed with her, I know”, “She is beautiful”, “She is our first lady of sport” and so on.

Feminine masculinities and masculine femininities are not normally celebrated so overtly. On the contrary, women looking, dressing and moving like Semenya are often the targets of hate crimes, “curative” rape and homophobia.

Women who don’t buy into gender-stereotypical behaviour are often violently “reminded” of who they are supposed to be. It is Semenya’s nonconformity that the Young Communist League is conveniently forgetting when it calls her sex testing racist.

After all, Serena and Venus Williams have never been similarly tested — because they are Americans. But, unlike them, Semenya does not run across tennis courts in miniskirts and have a prominent cleavage.

In not acknowledging the Williams sisters’ gender conformity, this particular critique of racism silences the uncomfortable fact of Semenya’s transgender performance.

The constant reiteration that she is a woman, and support for her that assumes her treatment is unfair to a woman (rather than unfair to anyone, whatever their sex and gender identity), reinforces the same binary that is the cause of the problem: men have to be men and women have to be women.

Looks, clothes, gestures, hormones, hairstyle, physiognomy, movement, voice, chromosomes, psychology, attitudes –all these are seen to divide us, yet we’re supposedly equal.

Do we all know our chromosome status and testosterone levels (maybe some are in for a surprise)? What about those born with ambivalent genitals who are raised female, undergo surgery and become male? And what is it that makes a woman a woman? Is it the ability to give birth? If so, after menopause, am I a woman no longer? Why do we need to be sure about someone’s sex at all? Why do we need to have our biologically allocated sex in sync with our gender performance?

While we are celebrating Semenya’s achievement, why aren’t we doing so on the grounds that she — as all of us — could be found to be anything and everything?

And why are her supporters not stating clearly that she will be a South African celebrity whatever the outcome of her sex test? What will a result suggesting she is not “entirely female” represent for her supporters? Will they stand by her side and make sure she does not have to give back the medal?

Sex tests have strong ideological undertones. During the Cold War it was the Eastern Bloc that was suspected of “cheating”; now Western newspapers report that it is particularly Third World countries that send men disguised as women to international sports competitions.

The point is not merely that athletes from the First World are not also subjected to sex tests. It is rather that, given the history of slavery and colonialism, the exposure of a black woman’s body has a very specific context.

In the sensationalism of Western media discussing the “Bantu as often being hermaphrodites” and in the echo here of Sarah Baartman being exhibited at fairs and her genitals being dissected after her death, we recognise a painful “herstory”.

This is a history at the intersections of racism and sexism, buoyed up by science and public spectatorship, that is re-emerging right now in front of us. No person, black or white, should be subjected to the investigation Semenya has undergone.

A narrow understanding of the diversity within femininities and masculinities haunts both South Africa and the world.

For our country, this moment must make us measure our progress on the constitutional imperatives of freedom, equality and dignity for all.

And it is an opportunity to question how truly we are willing and able to engage and embrace difference.

Antje Schuhmann is a senior lecturer in Wits University’s politics department


We celebrate otherness today


Long before the Caster Semenya sex-test row hit the headlines, South Africans in all their corners were questioning her identity.

Inevitably questions such as “would you want to be seen with her”, “would you marry her” and “she must be a lesbian” peppered conversation. It’s wonderful how the rainbow nation has rallied around its “golden girl”. But how deep, how broad, how far and for how long will this celebration of otherness last?

Remember, Semenya’s agony did not start with (though it will be considerably aggravated by) being thrust under the global media spotlight. It started with being a little girl who liked playing soccer in the dusty plains of Limpopo, who has been refused entry into public toilets and whose humiliation did not start in Berlin.

As I watched the headlines progress from “She’s a lady, man” and “Yes, she’s a girl” to “All black, all gold, she’s our girl”, I could not help but remember the story of Marco Ndlovu, one of many women who annually participate in workshops to chronicle their lives at Gender Links.

The following are a few lines from her testimony, written under the header “Finding the real me”: “I am a 39-year-old black lesbian born into to a family of eight, of whom only five survived. Gender violence has been so much a part of my life that at times I wonder if there is such a thing as a life free of violence.

“As a lesbian, hate, violence and misogyny follow me wherever I go. I became pregnant as a result of being raped by a man I believed to be a friend. I have been beaten almost to pulp because of my sexual orientation.

“I have a female lover, but since she is not ready to be open about our relationship, we have to keep it secret. While I look for whatever job I can get so that I can build a home for my children and grandchildren, I write poetry and create the world of my dreams with the words that flow from my pen.

I am Marco, a proud woman, who loves her two daughters, who loves other women, and who — despite the pain and suffering that I have endured — is finally finding the real me.”

I remembered Marco, because like Semenya she is athletic, muscular, flat-chested and could easily be mistaken for a man. Unlike Semenya, she will not have a hero’s welcome, meet the president or have the whole nation proclaim her right to be.

As we welcome Semenya home, it behoves us to ask how many others there are out there, men and women, who have refused to conform to societal templates, and whether we will stand up for them in the same way.

In the very same newspapers that have now shown us every angle of Semenya’s face, her facial hair, her crotch, her braided hair and her muscular body (whenever before has a woman athlete featured so prominently on the front page of any newspaper?), we have the obligatory blonde, blue-eyed, skinny pin-up girls from Planet Hollywood pasted on back pages.

On the same page heralding Semenya’s red-carpet welcome on Tuesday, one paper reported on Miss South Africa, Tatum Keshwar, saying she hopes she has done the nation proud by being selected seventh in the Miss Universe contest.

So now its official: women come in all shapes and forms. Why is that important? Because although sex is a biological given (though even that, we have learned, is far from straightforward), gender is a social construct: how society expects women and men to behave.

Precisely because girls are expected to be pretty faces with limited strength and thinking capacity, they retreat or are forced to retreat from sport, from public life, from hard beats in the media, from boardrooms and management, from entrepreneurship and jobs such as mining and security.

Stereotypes also limit men: they should not cry, feel, care or engage in “women’s work”. In the past several years we have been running a course called Business Unusual in different parts of Southern Africa.

In Tanzania we found Masai men making money by using their skill in braiding hair to run salons in a local market, describing how, by challenging their socialisation, they are doing a rip-roaring trade. Bravo to them.

Will women in South Africa, come the World Cup in 2010, get to play the game, drive taxis and build highways? If we fail to use this extraordinary event to breathe life into the celebration of diversity envisaged in the Constitution, our large turnout at Oliver Tambo Airport this week will have been little more than a fleeting show of national unity.

We will have raised a middle finger to the rest of the world but retreated into our cocoon of black and white, male and female — not the rainbow nation we claim to be. Unlike Marco, we will still not have found our true selves.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links.


Castigated and celebrated

Had the acceptance by South Africans of athlete Caster Semenya’s difference been extended to murdered footballer Eudy Simelane she may have still been alive today, writes Mark Gevisser

Two highly accomplished, young, black, female South African athletes are currently in the news. One came home to a hero’s welcome and got to meet the president. The other is dead, her alleged assailants in a Delmas court this week on trial for her rape and murder.

Blessed with masculine looks and physiques, both women chose the sportsfield over more feminine pursuits. Both experienced ostracism because they challenged stereotypes and both appear to have dealt with this by devoting themselves to their codes.

Caster Semenya, 18, won the 800m at the world athletics championships last week; Eudy Simelane had been a member of Banyana Banyana, the women’s national football team, and was training to be a professional referee when she was murdered in KwaThema aged 29 last year.

Both women appear to have been punished — one in the most severe way possible — for their difference and their excellence. Semenya has been dealt the humiliation of having her gold medal withheld until she proves she is a woman.

And although the prosecutor failed to establish a connection between Simelane’s sexual orientation and her murder, her friends are convinced she was the victim of an epidemic of violence against lesbians, who are subjected to what is sometimes called “corrective rape” by men seeking to punish or cure them; or who feel that butch women are competing with them by straying into their territory.

According to Phumi Mtetwa, director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, at least 20 women have been killed, in ways similar to Simelane, over the past five years.

In the shadow of such violence, what are we to make of the extraordinary surge of emotion and patriotism in support of Semenya?

Much of it seems driven by grievance, by the sense that South Africans have been denied a rightful reward. There was conscious reference, by parliamentarians, to Saartjie Baartman, and perhaps the national anger at Semenya’s humiliation arises out of what we might call our Bartman Complex, a particularly South African anxiety, that we will gain notoriety for our alleged abnormality rather than celebrity for our excellence. Or, worse yet, that we will be revealed as Mugabes rather than Madibas; that the world will take away our gold medal and label us freakish instead.

But the upside to this anger is the acknowledgement that we strive towards a society based on something different than the repressive notions of gender roles inherited from colonial law-makers and patriarchal African society.

Welcoming Semenya home this week, Jacob Zuma gave eloquent voice to this: not only had the athlete “showcased women’s achievement, power and strength’’, but she had “reminded the world of the importance of the rights to human dignity and privacy’’.

And so there is a way that the current adulation of Semenya — even if it is fuelled in part by jingoism and wounded pride — vindicates the memory of Simelane, and other young women who have been victimised because they are too butch for comfort.

This is not to suggest, for a moment, that Semenya herself is a lesbian, or a transsexual, or intersexed, or anything other than a shy and determined young woman who is a demon on the racetrack. Rather, it is to acknowledge the way our society’s response to the difference she represents — the language it uses to protect her — signifies a significant shift in social norms since the advent of democracy.

Listen, for example, to Leonard Chuene, the blowhard South African athletics chief: “I am not going to let that girl be humiliated, because she has not committed (any) crime whatsoever. Her crime was to be born the way she is born,” he said to one journalist in Berlin. And to another: “Why must she be subjected to this? How you look and behave is a God-given thing. You do not have a say in that.”

Leaving the nature/nurture debate aside (is how we behave a ‘God-given thing’?), Chuene’s comments acknowledge that Semenya’s gender identity is inherent and integral rather than perverse and pathological. And in acknowledging this, he is using (even if unwittingly) a template provided by the struggle for gay equality in South Africa. The winning argument, in this struggle, was that to discriminate against people because of gender identity or sexuality was to punish them for inherent qualities, and was tantamount to discriminating against them because of their race.

But Zuma, who spoke out for Semenya’s rights to privacy and dignity was also quoted as saying in Zulu last year, that in his youth he would “knock out” any effeminate boy he saw before him. He subsequently apologised for any offence caused and claimed he had been mistranslated: what he meant, he said, was that “if you saw a boy who was effeminate, a sissy, he was beaten up because everyone had to learn to fight and be strong”.

How, in a macho culture that accepts such behaviour as normative, does one entrench the values of dignity and privacy Zuma alluded to when he welcomed Semenya home this week? And is there more than a little expediency to her current adulation ? We are perfectly happy to have our women be butch so long as they bring home the medal, but when they actually attempt to live lives independent of men, they are often subject to the most extreme violation and abuse.

Will Semenya’s voluble supporters stick with her if it is found that she has more testosterone than the International Association of Athletics Federations feels is normal? Or will they feel betrayed by her, and lash out at her deceit, or simply drop her? And given the explicitly paternalistic tone of their support — “that girl”; “our child” — is it predicated on her remaining shy and deferential off the field?

Communities accept the stabane — the effeminate man — so long as “she” knows her place: in the hair-salon or in the kitchen. And there is a venerable tradition of tolerating or even celebrating gender-outliers so long as they remain within the confines of entertainment (drag queens) or sport (bull dykes).

The tougher challenge is to apply the humanity on display across South Africa this week to all people who challenge conventional gender and sexuality conventions, no matter how uncomfortable this makes us.

Wouldn’t it be great if Zuma or Julius Malema used Semenya’s celebrity to speak out against the violation of Simelane’s rights to privacy, dignity and life?

Gevisser is Writer-in-Residence, University of Pretoria. He divides his time between South Africa and France



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