Heteronormalizing the Black female athlete: the case of South Africa’s Caster Semenya

Date: November 11, 2010
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On August 19, 2009, South African sprinter Caster Semenya, crossed the 800-meter finish line in world record time at the Berlin World Track and Field Championships. Rather than focusing on her triumph, however, world media focused on her gender. As a scholar, I was fortunate enough to be in South Africa as events unfolded with Caster, watching an entire nation react in anger, pride, laughter, and concern, all at the same time. As a fellow Black female athlete, however, I unfortunately watched as an eighteen-year-old was publicly forced to define her gender, sexuality, and femininity to the world, simply because she ran, perhaps, ‘too fast to be a woman.’ South Africa and the United States are just two examples of countries that have societies shaped historically by Eurocentric, male, heterosexual beliefs and desires. Some may argue that the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya is simply an issue of gender inequity within sport, but I know firsthand that the issues stem much deeper than that.

This essay seeks to focus on the controversy around Caster Semenya in order to discuss the heteronormative pressures that are placed upon Black female athletes specifically and female athletes generally, by sports fans, coaches, media, administration, and sponsorship. Many scholars have addressed the concept of heteronormalization, but have not connected it to sport. It is important to analyze these instances of heteronormative pressure in order to be able to reach a state of true gender equity within sport in both South Africa and the United States. Why does society care so much what female athletes look like? Is more pressure placed upon Black female athletes to “feminizeÀ themselves, than on their White counterparts? What are these athletes asked to do to display heteronormativity when their gender identity is questioned? I seek to answer these and other questions within this essay, concluding with suggestions that may help to improve gender equity in sport.

To read this essay, click here.

Publisher: 34th Annual National Council for Black Studies
Year of Publication: 2010

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