Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
20 August 2009

On sex, gender, sexual orientation and a world champion

Caster Semenya (pictured) won a gold medal for South Africa in the 800 meters at the world athletic championships amid a storm about her “gender” or “sexual orientation”.  Newspapers report that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered a “gender verification test” for Semenya a few weeks ago.

The ANC called on South Africans to “rally behind our golden girl and shrug off negative and unwarranted questions about her gender”, said ANC spokesperson Brian Sokutu in a statement on Thursday. “This smacks of racism of the highest order. It represents a mentality of conforming feminine outlook within the white race,” the Young Communist League said in a statement on Thursday. “The [Venus and Serena] Williams sisters were never subjected to such public humiliation as is done by the international athletic body. Is it because they are of American descent?” read the statement.

Of course, most of us will rejoice about this triumphant victory for the young women from my home province of Limpopo.  Personally I am also glad that individuals and organisations who have been conspicuously and criminally silent on the murders of other women who did not conform to feminine gender stereotypes have suddenly decided to give support to Semenya. Better late than never. I cannot wait  to go on a march and toyi-toyi alongside masses and masses of ANC, COSATU and Young Communits League leaders the next time we protest against the homophobia amd gender-prejudice so embedded in our society and  our Police Force.

Maybe this is a “teaching moment” that will educate many of the bigots in our society about the need to respect individuals who do not conform to gender stereotypes – whether those individuals are men who are thought of as effeminate or women who are thought of as masculine or challenge these stereotypes in other ways.

The media reports are, however, tinged with sensationalism, prurience and conceptual confusion. Journalists do not seem to understand the difference between “sex”, “gender” and “sexual orientation”, conflating all three in reports on Semenya.

“Sex” is of course generally thought to refer to the biological characteristics of an individual – whether one is biologically a man, a woman or intersex. For example, if someone has a penis he will usually be categorized as a man and this will refer to his sex. “Gender”, on the other hand, is generally thought to refer to characteristic behaviour usually associated with a person’s sex. People who, biologically speaking, may be classified as women, say, are generally expected by our society to “behave and look like women” (whatever that might mean). “Sexual orientation” again generally refers to whether someone is emotionally and sexually attracted to members of their own sex or members of the opposite sex.

These chategories themselves are open to question as not everyone neatly fit into them.

Of course Semenya does not outwardly display the gender characteristics that our bigoted society usually associates with women. But that is decidedly NOT the point here, as Semenya could not possibly be disqualified from competing as a woman merely because she does not display the gender characteristics traditionally associated with women.

There could only possibly ever be an issue if Semenya’s “sex” (and NOT her gender) was in question. Yet the media talks about her gender being in question, which is just daft. The Star also – completely wrongly – spoke about her sexual orientation – which should also be utterly irrelevant when deciding whether she could compete in a women’s event or not.

In any case, I hope our new star will make people sit up and reflect about their own prejudices around sex, gender and sexual orientation and their assumptions about sex and gender. These chategories are far more fluid and do not always neatly conform to what our culture, society and science tells us they should. Maybe Semenya will help South Africans to confront some of these prejudices in a way that Brenda Fassie never managed to do.

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