Biological Essentialism and the Case of Caster Semenya

When Notions of Gender Ruin What Should Be the Joy of Sports



The Mantle Image Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya at the London Olympics, 2012.



Some tales seem too dated or warped to write, until you live through them. When the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed down its ruling on the case between Mokgadi Caster Semenya and the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), I can’t say I was shocked. There’s something you learn from years of doing the kind of messy, hands on, and excessively personal work that activists do in different contexts – I call it hopeful pessimism.


I recall hearing that Caster was not backing down against the unfair treatment being dished out to her by IAAF and thinking here goes another black woman standing up to the system when the system could have corrected itself ages ago! For those who would like to have race removed from this conversation, I’d like to know what you would replace it with because there will be a huge gap left. Caster stood up for her right to compete. She went into competitive sports so she could compete, but then found that the system is only designed to appreciate bodies like hers when they don’t complicate things too much.


Isaac Makwala, the 2018 Commonwealth Games 400m gold medalist from Botswana, was once forced to run a race by himself after he had admitted to vomiting during a tumultuous World Championships in London in 2017. Officials cited him as a health hazard, so he was separated from the field. He ended up running a qualifying race by himself. I recall the shock of many Batswana trying to figure out why our athlete was being subjected to such inhumane treatment when he had done his part by being completely transparent. While Makwala racing alone was humiliating, I feel as though his momentary mistreatment pales in comparison to Caster’s decade long fight against IAAF and its biological essentialist regulations.


These regulations are not without foundation – they are based on the idea that biology is what makes an athlete great, and testosterone in particular. However, the scrutiny athletes face hasn’t been as strong as that against a black, African woman who just so happened to spark question marks in the minds of those imposing a Western, colonialist gaze of femininity – prior to athleticism – upon Caster. The issue started based on how "unfeminine" she was – therefore lending her to the gaze imposed on the much afflicted masculine African in the Euro-American universe. Even with the understanding that Caster has different sex characteristics, most specifically testosterone levels, than the typical woman, a witch-hunt ensued to try and discredit her abilities in order to protect the dainty damsels who are gagged as wards of patriarchy.


I wasn’t surprised at all that some of these protectionists, who believe women exist to be protected by men, and patriarchy princesses decided to rear their heads during the furor against the ruling. Biological essentialists roam among us – to use their rhetoric. For example, I saw some gay men say that it was an obvious thing that higher testosterone levels would disqualify Caster from competing against other women—seemingly without the understanding that women also produce testosterone, but Caster just happens to be androgen sensitive—and so they think she should be medicated in order to compete. While the gay male demographic might seem too easy to refer to, I do so to show that there are people – even among the self appointed leads of LGBTQ+ struggle – who choose to ignore the humanity of the situation and focus on “facts”; the same things used to oppress their predecessors. One needs only look back 40 or so years to find research, which qualified male homosexuality as being the result of producing less testosterone than “real men.”


Now, here we are in 2019 watching a global case unfold in front of our eyes, but I want to make sure people understood the case is about more than just whether one of the fastest women living today should be allowed to run; it’s about whether athletes should be a science project. I have said to many people that if we are going to get Caster to regulate her testosterone levels, then we need to figure out what the levels for male participants should be. Should is the operative word here. This will mean that we reject male participants who do not naturally produce “sufficient” levels of testosterone, or those who produce “too much.”


As a trans-identifying person who has watched their participation in competitive sports – be it tennis, swimming, dancing or whatever – decrease due to governing institutions and regulations telling people like me that we don’t belong, I feel Caster’s exclusion at depths I can’t quite fully express right now. I recently found out that a 2018 change to national regulations now allows me to join an amateur team aligning with my gender identity; this is the change I needed when I was considered for a national draft when I was much younger. I’d pushed it out of my mind due to a full understanding of the complex space of having to hyper-perform, which I would be throwing myself into. Caster doesn’t have any of this gender flexing to worry about; her issue is that there is a system trying to tell her what makes her woman enough to not be dangerous. This is biological essentialism at its height.


Who is woman, when is she, how is she, what courses through her blood, what must her genes allow and reject – these are all things this ruling against Mokgadi Caster Semenya require us to talk about. This should be turned on men as well if we are to be equitable. This means in 2019 that we are still sitting and looking at penises, vaginas, internal testes and clitorises when we are determining what excellence looks like in an industry we have created. It’s almost as if we don’t know that we can shift sports regulations to suit the growth in our collective knowledge. Nike put its money behind Caster to say they support the athlete. The South African government has done the same. Is CAS trying to make a biologically moderated and ideal, competitive sport industry? If this is the case, then I’d like to know when we will address the Michael Phelps mutational advantage situation. I won’t go into that now, because white men win, right?


The problem with accountability is that it’s a blanket, not an arrow you fire at a target and forget. If we cover Semenya then we must cover Phelps and all others as well. The lack of sensitivity displayed by IAAF, following the ruling, saying that if Semenya wanted to continue participating in sports, she can compete with men in any competition at any level and without restriction shows how disposable the entity sees people with different sex characteristics to be in the industry and the world. Protectionism says to women, and weak men, ‘you’ll only be worthy of respect if you can match the prowess of ultimate masculinity.’ We saw this same protectionism when John McEnroe said Serena Williams could beat women but would inevitably lose against a man.


The story of Mokgadi Caster Semenya fighting a system built to exclude queer(ing) bodies isn’t one I thought would be written in 2019. This is meant to be the stuff of legend, but it seems that biological essentialists refuse to let the world open up and be as marvelous as it is full of diversity. Complexity is what sets the great apart from the good. Running away from this complexity is a sign of laziness; the kind which sets everyone back more than it allows anything to move forward. With such a long history of black women forcing systems to change or implode, Semenya’s chapter is loaded and only time will tell how it ends.



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Gender, Women