GAY AND GRAY: Caster and Me - Musings About Gender
Posted Sep 24 2009 10:19pm
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Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams ( bio ) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here. ]
Last month, after a summer out of town, I visited the gym where I've been a member for a couple of years. I pulled out my bar-coded membership card and ran it under the reader at the front desk. "Beep-beep" went the reader.
A new employee was looking at the computer screen from her perch at the desk; she looked up at me and blurted: "But you can't be Ja..."
Then she stopped abruptly. And looked embarrassed. I get this all the time. I smiled at her. "But I am."
Years of this have taught me that, to a casual glance, I don't always "read" female. The most common occasion when I get this response is on entering a public "Ladies Room." Women have been known to gasp at my entrance. I just smile these days; when I was younger, I sometimes got angry.
But I'm lucky; I had parents who always told me I was a "handsome girl" and I believed them. I am loved by a wonderful, discerning woman - she knows I'm a woman. Mostly I'm comfortable with the confidence that it is the folks who can't see my gender who have the problem.
Sometimes it's the clothes that mislead, I think. In this instance, I had on baggy, knee length shorts, like those basketball players of both genders wear. Good for the gym.
Sometime I think it's about size. I'm 5 foot 10 inches and I have broad shoulders, like a construction worker. (I was a construction worker for some years, 20 years ago.) At one campaign where I was coaching young organizers, they gave me the nickname "LumberJan,” I didn't mind.
At the moment I'm a pretty reasonable weight for my height and looking pretty fit; sometimes I'm larger and not so fit. These variables don't seem to make much difference to these encounters. Nor does hair length, which nowadays varies from frumpy short to really short.
But for goodness sake, I'm a 62-year-old with wrinkles and white hair and more or less the ordinary shape of a woman. When I was younger, I thought I'd probably leave these encounters behind with age. There is some cultural expectation that our superficial gender appearance - the gender people assign us at a glance - becomes less definite as we age. That has not yet been the case with me. I still cause mild (harmless) confusion.
I know I'm a woman. I think (and have always thought) I look like a woman - what's wrong with how people see?
A young rural South African, Caster Semenya, is currently having to live out having her "sex" questioned with the whole world watching. She unexpectedly ran the fastest 800 meter race of this season - athletic authorities have made her submit to "gender testing."
Her father - and much of the media in her country - reacted with incredulity and more than a little rage.
”The 18-year-old runner's father, Jacob, told the Sowetan newspaper: 'She is my little girl. ... I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times.'"
"'I see it all as a joke, it doesn't upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself,' she told You magazine, South Africa's biggest-selling English-language magazine. 'I am who I am and I'm proud of myself.'"
As it happens, the one of world's foremost students of the physiology of running performance is a South African, Dr. Timothy Noakes of the University of Cape Town. He points out what actually matters in deciding whether Semenya should be allowed to run in women's races:
”... the issue of 'unfair advantage' which is the only thing that should be at play here, as it is in the case of drug use, is simple to establish...the issue that needs to be clarified here is whether the person concerned is a man masquerading as a woman or not. This could be established by a simple physical examination 'handled within the usual constraints of the doctor/patient domain -- not in the public domain."
Dr. Myron Genel, an endocrinologist at Yale University, explains further:
"The current clothing used in athletic competition, as well as the requirement that urine for doping control is voided under direct supervision, [have] made it virtually certain that male imposters could not escape detection."
Sensationalist tabloids are leaking that the "tests" will show her to be intersex. They may be right. Something like one in 1500 people is born with a more complex chromosomal configuration than the orthodox XX or XY. Most of these people present normal looking bodies - but some don't. And even people with the usual complement of sex chromosomes don’t always have the corresponding genital plumbing.
All women normally produce some amount of testosterone, the characteristic "male hormone"; there is no hard and fast standard level. And on top of these physiological realities are layered social expectations about what women look like and how we present ourselves. (And none of these variables dictate the perceived gender that individuals may be sexually attracted to.)
Women especially get chewed up in these gender conundrums. One of my local sports columnists expressed his amazement at the bodies of women athletes - women whom no one is questioning about their sex or gender:
In women's tennis, we've got Venus Williams, listed 6-1 and 160, but maybe bigger; Serena Williams, 5-9 and listed at 150, but maybe closer to 185; Maria Sharapova, 6-2 or taller. Those three would overpower the biggest men from 20 years ago. John McEnroe, built like a poet, couldn't string their racquets.
What's broken in the case of Caster (and me to a much lesser extent) are the social norms that don't expect a woman to be a non-standard size (though Semenya is only 5'7"), or have unusual speed and strength (she proved it), or have the focus and discipline of an extraordinary athlete (darned few of any gender have that).
I think Semenya is beautiful - I think the folks who can't see her as a woman are the ones with the problem. But I'm not some teen at the vortex of an international hullabaloo. That kid deserves congratulations for her accomplishments, not poking and prodding.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Beauty