On Caster Semenya

It is difficult to write on Caster Semenya. It is difficult because it participates in an ongoing spectacularization that, at this time, could probably not have been handled better. I write this not simply to be perverse, to go against the many people who have claimed it could have been handled better, but because I think it exposes real fissures among the communities to which, for better or worse, I belong to and study—what that particular combination produces continues to be a source of personal anxiety and intellectual excitement.

Arguably, those who can best speak to Semenya’s situation are queer scholars. Yet, this group might also be the least suitable, and this due to issues of race, nationality, and history. What does it mean when predominantly non-Africa based scholars who work on gender and sexuality speak to an African cause? We already have some answers from the many battles over reproductive health—and this includes those who still believe that such efforts are genocidal, those who believe to plan a family is to kill a people. And we know, as well, the tense relationship that continues to obtain between so-called Western Feminists and so-called African Feminists, or Gender Activists. Culture and Values collide. I bracket this for now.

To speak of Semenya from the position of a queer activist is, of course, to queer Semenya within a very particular context—which is not to say that Semenya has not already been queered in many ways, by those who insist on and contest gender normalcy. Semenya is as queered by those who insist on her gender normativity—she is a woman, her grandmother insists—as by those who insist on hir gender non-normativity—she is not a woman, others contend.

Insisting on Semenya’s woman-ness pits tradition-culture and an alternative-scientific viewpoint (science here simply as knowledge) against medical science gender certifying technologies—that these are certifying rather than authenticating or verifying must be kept in mind. And here the gender activist Africanist inhabits an overly loud history that protests gender certification. This is not a comfortable position.

Insisting on Semenya’s gender non-normativity engages the truth-claims of medical certifying technologies as they engage with scholars and activists who have continued to wrestle with the histories of such truth claims, and the sotto voce medical procedures that have tried to privilege culture over science in the name of science—a science that refuses to admit intersexuality as anything more than a correctible pathology.
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The first time I cracked open a book called Bantu Gynecology it fell to a picture of a “hermaphrodite.” Were I to construct a fiction from that moment, it would say that I became aware that bantu-ness had something to do with sexual morphology, that there was something both dramatic about that morphology and that something traumatic happened to those who, like me, dared to look at it. 8 or 9 is a little late for the primal scene, but this must surely count as one of mine.

No doubt, the headless picture (Man in Polyester Suit has nothing on this) was intended to illustrate a condition, but its very headlessness had a metonymic effect, one heightened by dressing codes. The picture made me uncomfortable, made me wonder if it told a truth about sex, a truth about me, about my own gender non-normativity. It made me wonder about the truth of bantu sex, a truth that was medically certified.

Because my scholarly work has focused predominantly on North America, at least when it comes to questions of morphology, I have been able to avoid the bantu-ness of sex, until now.

As self indulgent as such an awkward confession is, it might help to frame my ongoing attempts to engage Semenya.
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Under what conditions would the Intersex Society of North America or the United Kingdom Intersex Society be able to make a difference in Semenya’s life? These are big questions, though not necessarily the right ones.

Under what conditions would South African queer activists be able to make a difference in Semenya’s life?

Under what conditions would black South African queer activists be able to make a difference in Semenya’s life?

The questions can be multiplied, but the form remains the same.

It is striking that the month-long coverage of this case has not engaged with scholars and activists who work on intersexuality. At least there has been nothing that I have seen. It is striking and saddening because it hides from view the affective communities that Semenya might need most, or not at all.
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It is this push-pull that makes Semenya impossible to talk about.

Internationalized without being cosmopolitan. Gender troubled without being properly gendered. And, now, if we are to believe reports, negotiating a life made impossible.

This is the question that troubles me: what would it take to make Semenya’s life livable? How does one chart a map back from impossibility?
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What does it mean to defend Semenya? How does one defend gender? How does one protect it? How will Semenya’s story circulate and with what effects, especially for those with non-normative modes of expressing gender in Africa?
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I mention one more fissure: between feminist and queer readers of Semenya.

I am not sure what it means to defend Semenya: from what or from whom and to what end? While Semenya might be our millennial anti-Hottentot Venus, as I have described to friends, it is not yet clear to me how Semenya benefits in that iconic position. It is more clear how feminists and queer activists can frame necessary conversations around morphology, expression, nation, and so on.

To use Semenya to illustrate the policing of women’s bodies and lives is necessary. But I wonder to what extent “woman” might become reified in a way that might be antithetical to some queer activism.

To use Semenya to illustrate how bodies and gender are policed and queered is necessary. But I wonder to what extent queer acts of affiliation make Semenya’s life less, rather than more, livable.

To use Semenya as a jumping off point to discuss intersex issues is necessary, not least to avoid reifying women and privileging gender undecidability. Here, we are asked to think seriously about the intersection of biology and culture, about livability in all its messy complication.

And it is this, finally, that concerns me: what is livability for Semenya? What is a rich life, a possible life, a good life?

3 thoughts on “On Caster Semenya

  1. This has been the best written piece I have read in a long time while clearly asking the necessary questions. Thank you for writing this!

  2. Really superb, as always. I also wonder, though, should the focus be on “defending Semenya” or rather on helping to ensure there is a space or spaces in which Semenya and other intersex people coming from the place she now is can talk and think through herself or selves? It’s impossible at this point to shut down the spectacularization, and having US and Euro queer scholars step in to decide for her how she ought address the situation and think about herself is problematic, but in light of how badly the whole situation has been botched, by South Africa’s and international sports authorities, the media, and so on, aiding Semenya in establishing a discourse in which to become herself as she sees fit seems optimal. It is telling that almost no scholars or theorists working in the area of intersexuality have been consulted, at least by the MCM, but what do you think is really happening in South Africa around Semenya, given some of the scholarly and theoretical (and creative) work of South Africans themselves? Do you know?

  3. I haven’t been following the news, and especially not news from South Africa. I have, however, just asked a friend in South Africa what is going on, and she is well placed–in feminist and queer circles–to have a good answer.

    A CFP is circulating right now in which Semenya’s name is mentioned as a possible paper topic. I know this is what we do, and I realize that it does create enabling spaces, even livable spaces, but it still feels “off.”

    A U.S.-based commentator mentioned that now Semenya will sell the rights to a story, have a movie made, and have some kind of financial payoff from 13 minutes of infamy (we have to shave off 2 minutes!). I wish it were that easy–and maybe it will be. In part, to be confessional, I am measuring the kinds of impossibilities that we who live abroad negotiate, the kinds of impossibilities that make living abroad less impossible than living at home. Semenya has become a name for that impossible-less impossible scenario. But this might be too dark. And unnecessary.

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