Caster Semenya: Champion, Activist, Black Lesbian


Many people may have only just heard about Semenya - after the highly publicised IAAF ruling against her a few days ago. If she wants to continue to compete she will have to take contraceptive medication to bring her testosterone levels down to ‘normal’. All, they say, so there can be a level playing field.

In fact what they are doing is punishing her for being - in Hannah Gadby’s immutable words - ‘an incorrect woman’. Isn’t there something haunting about forcing a lesbian to take contraceptives? A message to the rest of us that we will be drugged and forced kicking and screaming into the heterosexual fold - especially if we plan on beating them at their own games.

So many of the articles I’ve read about Semenya don’t even acknowledge that she is an out and proud butch lesbian. And yet surely it is the specific intersections of her race, gender and sexuality that have made her a target. From the Williams sisters to Florence Griffith Joyner, black female athletes have long been accused by their white competitors of being ‘like men’. As a visibly butch black lesbian this insult is directed in an even more pointed and brutal way at Semenya. She proudly posted her wedding photos on instagram, she is wearing a suit and her wife a dress. Beautiful and magnificent, she doesn’t hide who she is. She is, like so many butch lesbians, so very confronting to the world.

So confronting that they have invented medical science to support their arguments. Not much is known about hormones and how much constitutes too much or too little and crucially - whether that of course makes you more of a man or more of a woman. They have created for the purposes of athletics - but arguably for all of us - the idea of a woman. Most of us, of course, will never match up to it. Trans women will be killed for it. Two cis women a week in the UK will be killed for it. And butch lesbians will continue to live our lives in the shadows, our stories untold and our talents never celebrated.

I can’t help feeling that Semenya’s battle is a frightening sign of things to come. Increased homophobic hate crime has gone hand in hand with increased racism and yet few people seem to want to discuss the connection. My wife and I, a mixed race relationship, are bombarded daily with a toxic combination of homophobic and racist abuse. People’s willingness to attack anything ‘different’ in these troubling times makes people of colour and queer people (and of course queer people of colour even more so) a target. Those white queers who stood by while my wife and I were abused and threatened by a white man in car park in Hackney think their racism will protect them. It won’t.

I’ve talked quite a bit amongst friends about the increase in hostility on the streets but it’s also started to swell up within the queer community. Barely a day goes by when I don’t get an abusive message or comment - not to mention direct questioning of Butch, Please! as a valid and successful club night. Too many queer written blogs or articles use photos from the Butch, Please! instagram, only to criticise or belittle what the night stands for. Butch women and gender non-conforming women are not just your fetish. We have always had to fight for our right to party on the queer scene and now more than ever.

We battle on. Semenya certainly has for the last 10 years or more. Her strength, and positivity are both an inspiration and a lesson in how to continue to move through the world authentically as a butch woman and how to have big dreams and succeed when everyone says you can’t. As I said in the video I made for Pink News last year, I’m not a man because you say I look like one and I reject a notion of butchness created by the likes of white men like IAAF president Seb Coe. Just like all the other different types of women all over the world and across time who have fought to live authentically and free from violence, it is my own and I am a woman.

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