Caster Semenya: When Fairness Is False

 The IAAF ruling that South African athlete Caster Semenya would not be allowed to compete in the women’s category without the use of testosterone suppressing drugs has made it painfully apparent that black women’s femininity will never be safe under a system that predicates itself on White Supremacy. However, the update to the IAAF’s decision that Caster is now free to compete in the men’s category (and the exclusion of Kenyan female athletes due to their naturally high testosterone levels) has confirmed what has long been discussed in feminist circles – that transmisogyny (the fear and hatred of trans women) and misogynoir (the fear and hatred of black women) is a backdoor facilitator for misogynoir.

Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images/ Getty Images

When examining the IAAF ruling and its wider context in the world of professional sport, we must ask ourselves what fairness means. Or, rather, we must ask ourselves, what are we prepared to let fairness mean and to whom are we prepared to apply it. In order to do this, we must compare and contrast Caster Semenya with other professional athletes that are (in the public understanding, at least) unfairly advantaged over their fellow competitors. We begin with Michael Phelps. By now, you will all have read many a article, blog post and tweet about that fact that Michael Phelps naturally produces 50% less lactic acid than his fellow swimmers in addition to having particularly long arms and a long torso all of which add up to gold medal success. I’m sure that to all of his competitors, it would appear that Phelps is so unfairly advantaged that none of them really stand a fair chance as long as he is allowed to compete. What are we to do? If we were to apply the logic of the IAAF’s decision, we should only allow Phelps to compete if he allows himself to be forcefully injected with just enough lactic acid to even the playing field between him and his competitors. 

But we’re not going to do that. Why? Because that’s just how it is in sport. People utilise their natural gifts and abilities in conjunction with training in order to see who truly is the best. Would it really be fair to forcibly hinder someone in the name of sportsmanship? I thought that our generation was supposed to be casting off our hunger for participation trophies and the “everybody’s a winner” mentality. The real world doesn’t give you any quarter, you have to get out there and compete on your own merits so why are the IAAF determined to be so soft on Caster Semenya’s competitors, thereby, robbing them of the chance to truly say that they competed against the best and were made stronger, better and faster for it? Again, we must look within ourselves and our society’s over-simplistic understanding of gender and ask, what does fairness look like? 

Does it look like Lionel Messi? 

Photo: EPA

When he was diagnosed with growth hormone disorder, a condition that would not only negatively impact his life but seriously hinder his athletic performance, it was decided that he would undergo monthly injections of human growth hormone as treatment for the condition. It is widely understood that Messi was not using human growth hormone as a performance enhancing drug, but as a long term treatment. His condition and treatment are afforded the compassion and understanding that they deserve. Why is such compassion and understanding actively being denied to Caster Semenya and others like her by the IAAF? Can it really be called an issue of fairness when the fundamental truth of who you are as a human is being used as grounds for your exclusion? If this is truly about fairness, then what is the IAAF communicating by saying that it is important for athletes to compete as their natural selves, unless those natural selves do not conform to a strict and over-simplistic gender binary? We know the answer. We have always known the answer. This has never been about fairness. This is about using the guise of fairness as a cover for gender essentialism as it expresses itself through misogynoir and transmisogyny.  Caster Semenya is not being asked to compete in the men’s category out of a desire to uphold the sporting ideal of fairness, she is being asked to do so because it is easier to humiliate her and make her classify herself as man rather than admit that we, as a society, have a woeful understanding of the intricacies of gender and that that woeful understanding has failed her and so many others. It is infinitely more comfortable to publically humiliate a black woman than for our disgustingly toxic and gender essentialist society to look itself in the mirror and admit that it has failed intersex individuals as well as so many others. We shouldn’t be surprised, it is what predominantly white societies that hold up white womanhood as the ideal standard of femininity have always done in order to make sure than black women do not get ideas above their station. It is why Serena Williams has had to face so much public scrutiny and scorn for the crime of daring to be the best at her sport while being black and not performing traditional soft helpless femininity that women like Joanna Józwik have had to resort to in order to make Caster Semenya appear like an iniquitous man that is out to terrorise them out of their ability to come seventh in the women’s 800 metres. 

This is why we must continue to ask ourselves this question again and again. In a world that has historically sought to oppress, humiliate and subjugate black women by denying them access to femininity, and is now, trying to do the same to intersex, non-binary and trans women, what does fairness look like?

Article by Tariyé Peterside. To see more from Tariyé here


You may also like...

This article by Lauren Dorling explores a belief held by certain environmentalists; that curtailing how many children we all have may be the only way to save our planet.



Using Format