Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why Sports Are Always Gender Queer

Let's face it: sports is perhaps the most prominent arena for challenging conventional gender norms. Unfortunately, in the high profile case of South African runner Caster Semenya, she had no choice in the matter.

The record-setting 18-year-old South African runner became the target of international controversey after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) forced her to take a gender test. Well, the results were leaked to the press: she "failed", whatever that means. According to them, she's intersex. Read more about the details here.

The details aren't really important. What makes this so intriguing -- and sad -- is that the controversy generally glosses over how sports have always been a site of both intentional and unintentional reisistance to gender norms.

First, there's the blatant homoeroticism of most major male-dominated sports, like wrestling and American football. Although both sports are brutal physical expressions of masculinity, they're also aesthetic and social examples of male bonding. Whether it's the tight uniforms, constant physical contact or on-and-off field comraderie, they all fall somewhere along the line of gender non conformity.

With self-identified women, this is especially true. I'm a life-long basketball nerd who was drawn to the sport at least partially because it allowed me to express an aesthetic queerness that I wasn't quite comfortable doing in other social situations. On top of loving the game, I was also drawn to the baggy clothes that also served as an excuse to get out of rigid gender norms at school. I could comfortably wear sweatpants and hoodies to school without people constantly asking me why I was trying to dress "like a boy." Most times, they'd just shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh, she's on the basketball team, that's cool."

Granted, there's still an huge underlying assumption that most atheltic self-identified women are queer, to some degree. But for the most part, it's socially acceptable. Sports have always provided relatively safe spaces for queer women to bond, interact and take on leadership roles. It's a huge deal to be a confused queer kid and finally feel like you're worth something on the playing field.

Obviously, Semenya's case is different. She self-identifies as a woman. She's being shamelessly humiliated by the international media. She's being forced to confront her gender identity when perhaps, it was never a question for her before.

In a similar case, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan also failed a gender test back in 2006 and was stripped of her silver medal at the Asian Games. She reportedly attempted suicide because of the controversy back in 2007.

I can't help but feel an overwhelming sadness for what she's going through. Recently, she withdrew from an upcoming race because, according to her coach, "she wasn't feeling well." For someone so young to go through something so humiliating in such a public way, I hope she has the support around her that she needs.


colin said...

great post, jay. ive been thinking a lot about this story/person lately. glad to see u back!

Jay said...

hey colin! thanks for the comment. crazy how this case is unfolding...

hope your semester isn't getting too crazy!