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Monday, August 22, 2016

Blazing the track

I’ve hesitated to write on this subject, because the ignorance and bitter feelings being expressed take away from the glory of athletic competition. But I feel I have to express my pride in Caster Semenya, who carried South Africa’s flag at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, and who won the women’s 800m race on Saturday night.

For those who don’t know the background, Caster Semenya’s career has been dogged by years of humiliation at the hands of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Not because she’s a doper, but because she isn’t. Semenya is believed to have, naturally, hyperandrogenism, which includes a higher testosterone level than most women. As a result, she has been excluded from competitions and forced to take testosterone-lowering medication to inhibit her performance—even though no less than the American Medical Association has concluded that no one factor can make the difference for an elite athlete.

Sex and gender are complicated and not as binary as we were brought up to believe. The truth is, though, that Caster Semenya is not the only woman like this, even at these Games. In fact the appeal to the IAAF’s ruling that allowed them, once again, to compete was not brought by Semenya, but by an Indian runner named Dutee Chand. Caster Semenya has been humiliated publicly for years to a degree that no other athlete has, for two reasons: 1. She is a woman with a female partner who doesn’t try to look or sound as feminine as other people think she should, and 2. She wins.

These points are important. Lots of women have known a taste of what Semenya has gone through, though not on a spectacular international stage. Because our voices were deeper, or our presentation less feminine, than other women expected, we have been subjected to a thousand everyday gender shamings. We have been stopped at bathroom doors, whether or not we were transgender. If we are athletes, we have been told “Be a man, you try hard enough” or ridiculed in general for our physical efforts and trying to compete. If we actually are lesbian, we have of course been bashed for that too.

There were a record number of openly queer athletes at these Olympic Games, many of them gay or bisexual women, and there were plenty of slurs and shouting against them. But sexism and homophobia are not new in women’s sports. It was not until the 1980s that women were even allowed to run long distances at the Olympics, and we’ve all read about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon and attempts to manhandle her off the course.

Many people have heard about Semenya and may be sympathetic to what I’ve written above, but still have this nagging sense that there is something unfair about it. Of course an athlete is the product of her training and coaching as well as the body she was born with, but what about the other athletes? Isn’t it unfair to include a woman with more testosterone in her body than other women in the race, even though she comes by that level naturally?

Competition is unfair. It’s unfair that no matter how hard I trained, I could never beat Caster Semenya or any other Olympian on the track. I could train hard and receive good coaching, but I was not born with the body, the athletic gifts, that every single one of those competitors also has. Some have rare features, such as unusually long arms. In this case, a swimmer like Michael Phelps is generally admired for his magnificence, not persecuted as a freak.

A lot of things go into making an Olympic champion. Some an individual is born with and others involve hard work. No one feature can predict a gold medal—if it could, wouldn’t Dutee Chand have won her event? Yet she didn’t even make the final, crashing out of her heat. Clearly, there’s more than testosterone at work here.

A lot more. Think of the men’s 10,000m race, which only one person from the western hemisphere has ever won (Billy Mills, a Native American Indian, in 1964). Is this event less exciting because we fully expect someone from the eastern hemisphere to win it? Should we exclude such men from the race, or make them run separately, or take hormones to bring their speeds down?

How about Usain Bolt’s astonishing triple wins at the 100m, 200m and relay distances? They were astonishing, but not because we tuned in expecting someone else to win. We were astounded not by suspense over the outcome, but by Bolt’s magnificent gifts. He was the greatest on the track.

Would we rather Bolt take performance-diminishing drugs, so others had a chance to catch him? How about a special race for supermen only, leaving ordinary mortals to contest the sprints? Or let’s give Bolt’s gold medal in the 100m to the silver medalist, Justin Gatlin, who has been a known drug cheat.

It’s ridiculous. Bolt is the best thing to happen to track and field in years, because he runs faster than anybody else, in the body God gave him.

The woman who won the gold medal to Caster Semenya’s silver in the 2012 Olympics has since been disqualified for doping. Yet some in international athletics would like to force women like Semenya to reverse-dope (some have even undergone mutilation, an obscenity). Let’s leave aside human rights and fairness for a second, and ask this: Would it really be better for the sport if some women were forced to run more slowly than they can, in order to give other women a chance? Could anything be more demeaning to the competition? Don’t people watch the Games to see the very best on earth?

Years ago Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story entitled “Harrison Bergeron.” In the world of that story, only people with severe speech impediments were permitted to speak on television. People who were deemed good-looking were required to wear clown noses, and especially fit people forced to weight their bodies down with shackles. All this made people “equal” so that no one would feel inadequate compared with an unusually gifted person. Vonnegut’s satire is obvious. But if world-class competition is reduced to such handicapping, don’t expect anybody to watch with pride.

As for Caster Semenya, she has proven to have more of that than most of the rest of us, too—pride and grace. “Be happy in front of your haters,” she posted last week; “it kills them.”

"Semenya didn't just win the gold medal in the women 800 metres final," writes Andrew Webster. "She won for every person who has ever been told they are different, they're not normal, that they should be ashamed of who they are."

Monday, August 1, 2016

Writing the future

A few years ago, I published a novel called The Trees in the Field, whose hero is a Republican woman in Congress. It begins: "Every United States senator looks in the mirror and sees a future president. Raybelle McKeehan had been seeing that future president since she was ten years old."
I chose that age deliberately, because when I was ten, I thought I could be president of the United States. 

Last week for the first time, a major U.S. political party nominated a woman for president. But this isn't about her. It's about some of the women who weren't talked about at the Democratic National Convention, and about how what is imagined becomes what is real.

In 1981-82, I had a couple of favorite books. They weren't my books; they belonged to my classroom in Carter County, Tennessee. One was the Arrow Book of Presidents. It had two or three pages about each of, at that time, thirty-nine men who had served as President of the U.S. I already liked history, and found that I was also interested in politics. In particular, I was interested in the presidency, a unique role that was at once "leader of the free world" and head of state of my country.

I learned the full names of all the presidents by heart. It's my party trick. At this year's Democratic convention, when the Jumbotron showed the faces of forty-three white men and one African-American man who have served as president, I was mouthing each name.

Then the Jumbotron showed a glass ceiling breaking. Here's another thing I remember about the Arrow Book. The back page listed the constitutional requirements to be president: thirty-five years old, a resident of the United States, a U.S. citizen from birth. "A man or woman," the book said, who met these three requirements could become president.

There it was. The Constitution didn't say it had to be a man. I could see in the Arrow Book that every president so far had been a man, but that didn't mean it had to be so forever. 

In the 1970s, books had begun to be published depicting a rainbow, Sesame Street kind of world, and these books had made it even to my school. They would illustrate "police officer," for example, with a picture of a black woman. To the adults around me--male and female--this was propaganda. "Why does it always have to be a black woman?" I would hear, even though--or perhaps because--none of us had ever seen a black woman fulfill this role in real life.

The presidency did not seem remarkable to me in this way. I had never seen anyone other than a white man preach, either, or serve at the communion table in church. I had never seen a female principal, although all of my teachers were women. I had never seen a female doctor, or a female police officer, let alone a black one. Yet in black and white--in books--it was possible.

My other favorite book of the time was They Led the Way. It also contained a few pages each about a number of people--in this case, a dozen or so American women whose names are still not well known. Anne Hutchinson, one of those banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because their religious convictions clashed with the Puritans'. Carrie Chapman Catt, whose mother explained that only Carrie’s father could vote, and who decided to do something about that. And a woman called Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 ran for president of the United States.
When I shared these stories, I heard remarks about these women too. Anne Hutchinson didn't just discuss her minister's sermons or say American Indians should not be slaves. As for Victoria Woodhull, she wasn't a serious candidate; she could never have really become president. The adults in my life didn't say that Hutchinson challenged the subordination of women, or that Woodhull advocated "free love," but there was obviously something wrong with each of them.

Neither book mentioned that one hundred years after Victoria Woodhull, Shirley Chisholm ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. She was the first black person to run for a major party's nomination for president, although not the first woman (Margaret Chase Smith ran as a Republican in 1964). Of course, she didn't get it. If black women in picture books were controversial in the 1970s, try imagining one as president!
She was succeeded as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus by a representative named Geraldine Ferraro. Chisholm herself betrayed her excessive optimism by predicting "We will have a woman president before the end of the century." It hasn't happened yet. But today her party, at least, could not function without black women, let alone win elections. When the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee resigned at the last moment, Donna Brazile stepped in as interim chairman. This year's convention was chaired by Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, and the CEO of the convention, as in 2008, was Washington, D.C.'s Reverend Leah Daughtry. 

If you want to know why a woman is this year's Democratic nominee, rather than the man who got almost as many primary votes as the Republican candidate, look at black women. Her performance with them was equal to Bernie Sanders's with voters under the age of twenty-five, and African-American women are a much larger percentage of the Democratic electorate.

After I was ten I began to learn more about sexism, and how women were not deemed competent to do a man's job. I saw what happened to the man who ran with a female vice presidential candidate in the 1984 election. Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro won only one state plus D.C., and it sounded to me as if this was all you could expect with such a fringe idea as nominating a woman. No one exactly said it, but like Victoria Woodhull, she couldn't be taken seriously.

By the time I was in high school, I realized that a female prime minister had been leading Britain for years. More and more countries around the world were electing female leaders, but clearly this hadn't made misogyny disappear. My working life brought an emphatic end to the illusion that women, even now, were treated equally. Before I ever heard of Barack Obama, I remember declaring that a black man was more likely to become president than a woman (though both seemed unlikely), and that if a woman ever was elected, I would eat my hat.

I am telling this story to illustrate that what is incredible to a forty-three-year-old woman was easily imagined at ten. We do not begin our lives feeling that some people have more worth than others. Snide remarks teach us that feeling, and then experience does the rest.

I was in the womb when George McGovern, instead of Shirley Chisholm, ran for president. McGovern's coalition of most people of color (a higher proportion of their votes than Obama got in 2012), together with radicals like gay activists, and the occasional college-educated white voter like my parents, also lost forty-nine states. But America has changed so much that this year, that could be a winning coalition.

I was born the week of Nixon's obscenely nicknamed "Christmas bombings," the biggest bombing campaign of the Vietnam war. My earliest memory is watching the U.S. bicentennial celebrations on TV, when Ford was president. I saw President Carter in person when he was campaigning for reelection in 1980. I saw Bill and Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire when Bill was running in the Democratic primary.

I was studying in England when Bill Clinton won election and reelection to the presidency. By the time of Bush v. Gore in 2000, I had emigrated to Canada. But I was back, on the National Mall in Washington, when the first African-American president--a man who had beaten Hillary Clinton--was inaugurated in 2009.

The four-yearly intervals of the presidency have marked my life, even far from the United States. I haven't had to eat my hat yet. But I do know that writing about things in books can fire the imagination of readers, and perhaps help little girls' dreams come true.