Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Contradictions and Connections: The Perils of Being A Strong Woman Athlete

Here is an interesting article that puts the “gender verification” challenge of South African runner, Caster Semenya, into a broader social context and discusses the outcry of support for her in South Africa in the context of nationalism, racism and aspirations to live up the South African constitution. South Africa’s constitutional protections based on sexuality and gender expression, as well as support for same-sex marriage, are among the most progressive in the world.

Despite a progressive constitution, old prejudices and privileges die hard and, at the same time that South Africans have rallied and embraced Caster Semenya, other women athletes who are openly lesbian and butch appearing have been raped and murdered for living their lives outside sexuality and gender norms.

Last spring Eudy Simelane, captain of the South African women’s football team (that’s soccer to Americans), was viciously attacked by a group of young men. She was gang-raped and beaten and stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. Simelane was openly lesbian and butch in appearance. She was the most well known victim of what has come to be called “corrective rape”. The young rapists see their brutal violence as both punishment and cure for lesbianism and non-traditional gender expression and themselves as entitled to perform the “correction.”

The Triangle Project, a South African gay rights group, published research last year reporting that 10 cases of “corrective rape” are reported in South Africa every week and that 31 lesbians were reported murdered because of their sexual orientation since 1998, but only two cases have been tried with only one conviction.

This article includes a shocking video interview with some of the women who have been targeted by “corrective rape” and comments from some young South African men who believe in it. Be forewarned, the language is strong and the content is disturbing.

Gang rape and murder are used to punish women who challenge heterosexism, sexism and gender norms all over the world. It isn’t just South Africa. We haven’t come anywhere near the progressive stance on human rights in South Africa’s national constitution here in the United States and women whose sexuality and gender expression don’t fit heterosexist and feminine norms run the risk of violence and discrimination here too.

Sometimes the punishment isn’t as violent or extreme as gang rape or murder, but the “crime” of being a lesbian, an uppity woman or a butch looking woman (or heaven forbid all three) is also punished in more subtle ways too. It all grows from the same oppressive roots. Gang rape and murder are on one end of the continuum, disapproval, teasing and bullying are on the other.

It is a reminder that the tools of silence and intimidation can be as openly brutal as rape and murder or as quiet as a hateful text message received alone in the school cafeteria, but they both have the same intent: conform, back down, stay in your place.


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