Thursday, November 26, 2009

Caster Semenya, the gender binary, and a case for the ‘sport continuum’

If you’re only vaguely familiar with the troubling case of sex-testing in sport and the Caster Semenya case, a new article in The New Yorker by Ariel Levy may offer the most incisive, comprehensive look at the case and the issues around it. Levy masterfully underscores the issues of racism and the power of the gender binary that underpin the tragic events around an 18-year-old South African runner.
In a Q-&-A about the article on the New Yorker Web site, Levy drives home her point about the myth of the gender binary -- and the ways this case has clearly upset it. She writes, “I think what has really got people worked up in the Semenya case is gender, not fairness. I think the idea that ultimately the boundary between male and female is porous is deeply destabilizing … our whole world is organized around gender.”
In the article, Levy addresses the problem – made abundantly clear by the Semenya case -- that the gender binary (defining male and female as rigidly defined, oppositional categories) presents for organizing sports. It has worked masterfully at reinforcing a hierarchy that has positioned women as the athletic underclass. But it’s not truthful, realistic or fair.
This is a case that has been made by sports sociologists for decades. Perhaps the most thought-provoking alternative to understand women and men in relationship to sports has been suggested by Mary Jo Kane, who in 1995 wrote about what she called the “sport continuum” – where we allow fluidity in our understanding of women and men and we also understand that men and women individual may outperform one another and possess varying degrees of strength and speed.
Accepting sport and gender on a continuum would force us to re-organize sport – a Herculean task, as Levy points out in her well-written piece. But as the Semenya case demonstrates: the gender binary as an organizer for sports simply doesn’t work – and the results are unfair and even devastating for the most vulnerable. -- Marie Hardin

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