What the Caster Semenya case says about misogynoir and transmisogyny in sport – and beyond

As the leading court for sporting decisions tells Caster Semenya she must take suppressants in order to compete, writer Paula Akpan looks at how the ruling has brought misogynoir and transmisogyny to the fore.

The ardent dehumanisation of Caster Semenya has a long history. We watched the South African athlete attain new personal bests at World Championships, only to be quickly hounded in the press with suspicions of drug use and leaked ‘sex verification’ tests which found her to have intersex traits.

We noted the way in which white women’s tears were weaponised against her at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as a tearful Lynsey Sharp - who came 6th place to Semenya’s 1st place - told the BBC: “You can see how emotional it all was. We know how each other feels. It is out of our control and how much we rely on people at the top sorting it out. The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule but all we can do is give it our best.” 

The change Sharp was referring to was the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)’s overturning of the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) rule that women exhibiting hyperandrogenism - a medical condition characterised by excessive levels of testosterone and other male sex hormones - would have to reduce their testosterone levels in order to compete within the women’s category.

However, the IAAF’s rule was only nullified for a period of two years, providing time for evidence-gathering into whether hyperandrogenic athletes have an unfair advantage. So in April 2018, the organisation introduced a revised policy on the “eligibility regulations for the female classification”. The policy stipulates that athletes competing in the women’s category must be “recognised at law either as female or as intersex (or equivalent)”, must reduce their blood testosterone levels, and maintain it at the reduced level for as long as they wish to be eligible to compete in 400m, 800m and 1500m races - all distances that Semenya has achieved personal bests in.

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This week it was announced that the 28-year-old Olympian has lost her discrimination case against the IAAF and in order to compete, she will have to take testosterone suppressants. The CAS concedes that the ruling is discriminatory, but stated that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the Restricted Events”.

Alongside archaic and binary understandings of gender classification, the public trial of Semenya’s biological make-up has brought misogynoir (misogyny against black women) and transmisogyny to the fore.

In a world where whiteness shapes and dictates what femininity looks like and who gets to claim it, Semenya is cast as deviant. Her blackness - coupled with a masculine-presenting form, muscular build, deep voice, proud lesbian identity and intersex traits - provide an arena for debates around her womanhood and comparisons to men. This is something we have seen before, with the likes of athletes such as Serena Williams

According to NPR, USA competitor Hazel Clark recalls there being “so much talk” around Semenya at the World Championships in 2009: “Everybody kinda said, ‘Something’s not right with her. God, have you seen her?” Italy’s Elisa Cusma Piccione said: “I am not taking [Semenya’s win] into consideration - for me, she is not a woman. I am also sorry for the other competitors… It is useless to compete with this and it is not fair.” GB athlete Jenny Meadows told the Guardian that the mood in the call-out room prior to the 2009 race was uncomfortable, describing athletes as “staring and laughing” at Semenya. 

Caster Semenya has been told she must take suppressants if she wants to compete
Caster Semenya has been told she must take suppressants if she wants to compete

In 2016, Polish middle distance runner Joanna Jozwick claimed that she was proud to have finished as “first European” and the “second white” in the race, despite finishing fifth. She later also told that Eurosport: “I must admit that for me it is a little strange that the authorities do nothing about this. These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male’s, which is why they look how they look and run like they run.” Of the three fellow competitors who earned podium places described by Jozwick - South Africa’s Semenya, Burundi’s Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Wambui - only one of them identifies as being hyperandrogenic. It is no mistake that the Polish runner wilfully conflates masculine appearance and testosterone with the blackness of the trio; in one fell swoop, she seeks to erase both their womanhood and achievements.

Throughout the mistreatment of Semenya, ironically, the clear theme that runs throughout is inconsistency. For example, critics quickly found flaws within IAAF’s 2018 revised policy and the findings that are supposed to support it: women with higher testosterone levels were found to perform best in hammer throw (4.53% difference in performance level) and pole vault (2.94%), compared to 400m, 400m hurdles and 800m (2.73%, 2.78% and 1.78% respectively). Yet, the former two events, which demonstrate the greatest correlation between women athlete’s performances and testosterone, were not included in the policy.

The inconsistency is epitomised by biologically essentialist arguments, as noted by Twitter user @obaa_boni. Arguments that lean heavily on ‘biological sex’ and the gender binary fall into confusion as here, we are being presented with a woman who is now paradoxically expected to suppress her natural testosterone levels in order to fall in accordance with what is considered appropriate of her gender. Writer Jason Okundaye also notes that Semenya disrupts the current gender and sex classification that takes place in sport through her possession of high testosterone levels, the “male” hormone that “has always been a political project to subordinate women as ‘biologically inferior to men.” He continues: “This kind of sex/gender segregation in sport is predicated on this binary. Because she is gifted with athletic dominance and traits assumed to be the sole property of ‘men’, her existence is pathologised as ‘virilisation’.”

In a climate that continues to vilify trans people and identify trans women as a threat to hegemonic womanhood, comments Paula Radcliffe made last month on Semenya’s legal case only added fuel to a raging fire. The former marathon runner told Sky News: “[Sporting federations] want to see what [the ruling] means for the future of female sport and also what it will do in terms of the whole transgender question. Will it open the door up there to transgender athletes actually being able to say: ‘You know what, we don’t need to bring our (testosterone) levels down either, we don’t need to have any surgery, we can just identify how we feel and we can come in and compete in women’s sports? That would be the death of women’s sport.” Radcliffe hitches her argument to existing trans-exclusionary feminist arguments and gender-critical rhetoric, exacerbating the idea of Semanya, despite being a cis woman, and trans athletes being a threat to gender norms and ‘real womanhood’.

Semenya’s blackness and her deviance from cisheteronormativity and acceptable femininity are seen as a threat to be policed and kept at bay. The physical advantages she holds are demonised, with authority bodies deeming it necessary to discriminate against her. Yet these same abilities are celebrated in the likes of Michael Phelps, lauded by experts as a “biomechanical freak of nature”, producing less than half the lactic acid his rivals do. Again, inconsistency rears its ugly head.

The IAAF assert that these rulings and policies are to ensure “fair and meaningful competition” but it’s important to ask at what cost and to whom? So far, Semenya has been subjected to years of violent demonisation and humiliation, both on the track and off it, and will now have to take medication to limit her capabilities. Tell me, does that seem fair?

Images: Getty


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