If you aspire to be a star woman athlete but have no aspirations to appear in Playboy‘s Women of the Olympics issue, you are far better off being from South Africa than the United States. The Western media’s handling of the story of Caster Semenya, the gold-medal-winning 18-year-old South African runner, has been at best simplistic and at worst repellent. In a salacious, drooling tone, “Is she really a he?” is the extent of their curiosity. On various radio shows, I’ve been asked, “Why does she talk like a man?” No one defines what “a man” is supposed to talk like. Or, “Do you think she’s really a dude? Is this a Crying Game thing?” I’ve heard it all this week, and most of the questions say far more about the insecurities of the questioners than about Semenya’s situation.
It’s not just in the confederate confines of sports radio. I appeared on Campbell Brown’s CNN show, where my co-panelist, Dr. Jennifer Berman, said that suspicion of Semenya’s gender was justified because she is “8 feet tall” (she’s 5-foot-7). How an 18-year-old runner became Yao Ming in Dr. Berman’s mind was never addressed. This is hysteria, pure and simple, and it is born out of people’s own discomfort with women athletes who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.
In South Africa, however, the response could not be more different. Semenya was greeted by thousands of people in a celebration that included signs and songs from the antiapartheid struggle.
She was even embraced by former South African first lady Winnie Mandela. “We are here to tell the whole world how proud we are of our little girl,” Mandela told cheering fans. “They can write what they like–we are proud of her.”
As Patrick Bond, a leading South African global justice activist, said to me, “To order Semenya tested for gender seems about as reasonable as ordering IAAF officials like Philip Weiss tested for brain cells–which actually isn’t a bad idea given his recent off-field performance. And if Weiss doesn’t have a sufficient number of brain cells to know how to treat women athletes, it would only be fair to relieve him of his functions for the good of world athletics.”
It’s not just national political figures with global profiles who are embracing Semenya.
The people have rallied around her fiercely, particularly in the very rural, impoverished, subsistence-farming community where Semenya was raised. Her home village, Masehlong, has an unemployment rate near 80 percent. They only recently acquired electricity.
As The Guardian recently wrote:
The loyalty of Semenya’s friends and neighbours is striking. South Africa’s rural communities are typically regarded as bastions of social conservatism divided into traditional gender roles and expectations of femininity. But there is no evidence that Semenya, an androgynous tomboy who played football and wore trousers, was ostracised by her peers. Instead, they are shocked at what they perceive as the intolerance and prurience of western commentators.
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‘They are jealous,’ said Dorcus Semenya, the athlete’s mother, who led villagers in jubilant singing and dancing on Friday. “I say to them, go to hell, you don’t know what you’re saying. They’re jealous because they don’t want black people improving their status.’
It perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising that they recognize the West’s “intolerance and prurience.” Unlike the United States, South Africa has same-sex marriage.
The African National Congress Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, while arguing in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, said, “In breaking with our past…we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia.”
Unlike the United States’, South Africa’s Constitution formally prohibits discrimination based on sexuality. The Constitution reads:
The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
This does not to mean South Africa is some sort of Shangri-La for LGBT people. But it does suggest the United States can stand to learn at thing or two about discrimination and human sexuality.
There is currently no definitive information regarding Semenya’s sexual orientation or gender choice. We know she identifies herself as an 18-year-old woman and she can run like the wind while not looking like a conventional pinup.
Unfortunately for women athletes, you can’t be too masculine for fear you’ll be called a lesbian. You can’t be too aggressive for fear that you will be called mannish. You must be an outdated stereotype of a woman before you are an athlete. You must market yourself as nonthreatening and blazingly heterosexual.
The most famous female athlete of the first half of the twentieth century was Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson. She won three medals in track and field in the 1932 Olympics and also became the standard for all women golfers. Yet despite her towering athletic accomplishments, Didrikson was denounced as “mannish,” “not-quite female” and a “Muscle Moll” who could not “compete with other girls in the very ancient and time honored sport of mantrapping.”
Hearing that in addition to track and field she also played basketball, football and numerous other sports, an astonished journalist asked Didrikson, “Is there anything you don’t play?” Without missing a beat, she reportedly answered, “Yeah, dolls.”
From Babe Didrikson to Caster Semenya, to paraphrase the ad for Virginia Slims: you’ve come a long way… maybe.