Caster Semenya just lost her long-running battle to get international sports authorities to leave her the fuck alone. The details are probably familiar to many of us, but for those who are unaware, here’s the gist: Caster is excellent at her job ("three world titles at 29" excellent), and the Swiss Court of Arbitration for Sport has ruled that she shouldn’t be allowed to keep doing that job unless she medically alters her body’s natural hormonal composition.
In the past several weeks, my publications here at The Correspondent have been about gender. I’ve written extensively about the widespread cultural addiction to the delusion of a naturally determined, immovable gender binary, in which there exist only two distinct and clearly defined possibilities. Too many people insist that this delusion is a fact. Yet, when we pay attention, we begin to see the abundant evidence to the contrary – even within the gender binary itself (tomboys; girly girls; men’s men; sissies).
Gender simply doesn’t do, in the real world, what many of us claim it does. Why are we so uncomfortable with this reality that we are willing to subject people to years of indignity, or even death, over their gender?
Like the idea of "God" (especially the Abrahamic ones), people like to insist that gender is both absolutely unassailable and endlessly in need of defending. But how can something be both of these things at the same time? Human rights should be absolutely unassailable, but because they are socially constructed, they are endlessly in need of defending. Gravity is absolutely unassailable (at least on Earth), so no one ever needs to defend it.
Sometimes I want to look mainstream gender square in the eye and ask, with a straight face, "well, darling, which is it?!"
Beyond "sex", which is the angle that most people like to defend, the gender delusion also has classist and racist roots. Ask yourself why when "women" got the vote in the US and UK, Black women – cis or trans – were not included. If you are able to answer that question honestly, you’ll arrive at the non-genital-related reason Serena Williams is called "mannish" and has been hyper-policed in her sport, for example. It’s the same reason Caster Semenya has spent almost a decade fighting legal orders requiring her to alter her body to satisfy some arbitrary idea of womanhood.
We can claim that gender is about genitals, chromosomes, or "biological sex" – and I’ve argued against that, because sometimes I like to meet people where they are – but there’s more to it than that. Gender, and more specifically the protection of the idea of it, is ultimately about power.
The gender binary, as well as the policing of bodies and behaviour that it produces, has always been about more than just "gender", or how people express their personhood. The way we are taught to organise gender is about control: of sexual and reproductive behaviour, economic activity and participation, and socio-political status. It’s about deciding what a person’s "place" is, based on a complex interplay of factors that has actually never been only genital- or chromosome-focused as we like to insist today. And it’s about keeping them in said place.
The truth is, even for those who fit within its arbitrary confines, the gender binary strips people of innate, inherent possibilities. To be a "man" or a "woman" correctly, you must abandon some parts of yourself to fit the binary’s script. That’s why we have to be taught how to "be" our gender. Don’t cry. Don’t feel. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t run. Don’t have observable bodily functions. Don’t express desire. Don’t stop expressing desire. For those who can’t succeed at internalising these lessons and fail to "do gender properly", the consequences are invariably an ongoing nightmare.
When do we get to the part where we are able to say to people, "be yourself"? When do we get to the part where people are able to be themselves, and be supported, accepted and validated for that?
Human beings are expansive. That’s really the gist of all I’ve written in the past weeks – indeed, the past year. Human beings are expansive, and we do ourselves a disservice by insisting otherwise. More and more people need to understand this simple truth. We need to get better at making social, political, economic etc choices from this understanding that all of our possibilities for self-determination, as human beings, are legitimate.
Everything that exists to curtail the freedom to be ourselves should be met with scepticism, at the very least, because there is no fixed way to be human. Instead of trying to force people into boxes, we should learn how to make space for who people are.
Like Caster Semenya said, these sports authorities are on the wrong side of history. She deserves better. Shame on everyone who insists otherwise.
Till next time,