Daily Nation, Kenya
Outside the Box
Kenyans and the man-woman thing: Thanks Semenya!
By CABRAL PINTO
Posted Monday, September 7 2009 at 16:54
[Photo: Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after she won the
women's 800 metres final during the world athletics championships at
the Olympic stadium in Berlin, August 19, 2009. REUTERS]
Kenya’s own Janeth Jepkosgei lost the recent 800 metres race at the
World Championships in Berlin to Caster Semenya of South Africa.
Kenyans seem to be waiting for the answer to the question, “Is Miss
Caster Semenya a woman?” If the answer is in the negative then our own
Jepkosgei gets the gold medal. I want to urge Kenyans to simply go
beyond the gold medal and bring the Semenya controversy close to home.
How do we deal with our Semenyas in various fields of excellence?
Shall we disown them or glorify them?
If Semenya is intersex – has sex organs of both gender – is the IAAF
going to make a scientific decision or a social decision? Who has the
right to determine her gender if she is intersex and has decided she
is a woman? Does this issue not tell us that we are dealing with a
complex issue, may be the end of gender as we know it?
Three interesting books deal with personal stories of people who are
intersex, who went through operations and became either men or women
or simply transgender. For Kenyans who want to be sensitive to these
issues I urge them to read: Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the
End of Gender by Riki Anne Wilchins; Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison
Green and Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits by Loren Cameron.
It is true these operations are necessitated by individuals who are
convinced that they are “trapped” in the bodies of the opposite
gender. Riki tells her story of the operation to become a woman while
James and Loren underwent operations to become men. These are real
life stories that will capture one’s imagination, sympathy,
understanding and respect for difference and humanity.
Intersex grown ups
We tend to dismiss the issue of difference by casting it in moral or
cultural arguments. I know that many intersex babies in Kenya have
operations the moment they are born, here the decisions being made by
the parents. As one would imagine, the majority of these babies end up
being male. Problems crop up later when the adults want to reverse
those decisions by their parents. It is also common knowledge that
intersex grown ups who seek operations after making their own
decisions invariably find surgeons who ask them to seek the permission
of their parents, their adulthood notwithstanding! It is not that as
Kenyans we do not know this problem. We do. We seem to refuse to treat
it with the humanity it deserves.
We are also a very homophobic nation, although I believe we have not
reached the horrific levels of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Do we regard LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, intersex and queer) people as human beings who are simply
different? Can we on any legal or moral basis argue that gay people
should be killed on the basis of their sexual orientation? Should we
condone discrimination in whatever form on the basis of sexual
orientation? What do we do when our relatives are gay? Do we announce
from the rooftops that they are sick and unmitigated sinners? Why
should we play God in these matters? The foremost bastions of
homophobia in many countries seem to be religious institutions
although I am sure they have no problems pocketing the offerings of
We need, as a nation, to correct the issue of discrimination. As we
discuss a new constitution we may want to discuss these issues of
difference and discrimination. Most of the gay groups in East Africa
are founded by young people who crave for understanding and respect
for their rights to be different. Cursing people who are gay, killing
them, discriminating them in jobs, housing and in health will not make
them disappear. If we are, indeed, religious we need to accept God’s
role in the creation and in the difference and at least discuss the
issue. I believe the first place where we should start this discussion
is in the family and cultivate understand that can perhaps permeate to
the rest of society.
One final word of advice to all Kenyans who want to stand up and be
counted in the struggle for equality and rights of the sexual
minorities is the realisation that you do not have to be gay to
protect gay rights.
I wonder if Semenya was Kenyan we would have flocked the JKIA to
welcome her. Her family, relatives and the wilder society in South
Africa glorified her victory. May be Semenya’s controversy will keep
Kenyans thinking through these broader issues and not the gold medal.
Thank you Semenya!