Over breakfast yesterday and again today, I read in the LA Times about Caster Semenya, the South African runner accused of being a man, Runner Caster Semenya has heard the gender comments all her life. And even in the midst of our family morning rush, I have to admit to being more than a little emotional about the story, and with good reason.
Just a few weeks ago, I was back home in Minnesota for my youngest sister’s wedding. After the reception, I stayed up late into the night with a few of my friends, my middle sister and my parents and we found ourselves reminiscing about our days of playing fastpitch softball all summer with my dad coaching. My friends and I marveled at my father’s memory of it all. He could tell us things like who we were playing, the name of the other team’s pitcher, where we were, and what the score and count was when my best friend hit the homer that won the game that won that tournament that year.
We didn’t remember all that. But one memory that was vivid for all of us and replayed together that night came flooding back once again these past two days as I read about Caster. One summer, playing in a national softball tournament, a team we beat accused of us of being boys because we were too good.
It was 1984. We were 14 and 15 year old nobodies from a small town in Minnesota in our first national tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah. The other team was powerhouse from Kansas, a regular in the tournament, with sharp uniforms and looking like they belonged there. But we were winning.
We were good, really good. Looking back, I’m still amazed at how much talent we had in our small town at that particular point in time. Our catcher and third baseperson in particular had been playing ball together for years. Together they were wicked good, and as the other team’s runners tried to take their standard lead off third base after each pitch, they would pick them off. So fast no one could see it coming.
Much to the other team’s surprise and dismay, we won the game.
After the game, there was some commotion, but I don’t remember much until someone told us the other coach was accusing us of cheating, that some of our players were too good to be girls and must be boys. He didn’t like losing. Kept saying we all had boy’s names and looked like boys. Well, we did have a lot of nicknames like Pete and Kenny and hardly anyone was called by their first names on the field, and yes most of us had short hair. And while my daughter today plays softball with ribbons in her hair, you wouldn’t have caught any of us dead playing softball with ribbons in our hair back then.
There were rumors of having a nurse examine some of our players. The next thing I remember is standing with our whole team in a dank concrete room in the back of the center stadium building. Several of my teammates were visibly upset. At 14, the idea that we might have to “strip” in front of a stranger to prove we were girls was pretty scary. I can guarantee you we all remember those few moments of anxiety when we didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was miffed, but for different reasons. I was pretty sure I wasn’t on their list of suspects because I wasn’t good enough.
It was like the opposite of being told “You throw like a girl.” Especially in 1984, it was sort of a back-handed compliment to be accused of “throwing like a boy.” So for all of us I think, we were a bundle of conflicted feelings – secretly proud at being so good, horrified to think we might have to submit to an exam, hurt deeply that someone was questioning who we were – our identity as a girl.
My dad, an attorney, wouldn’t let them single any of us out. We would all be in the room to hear the accusation. And all of us remember watching as my dad took them to task, verbally outmaneuvering them at every turn. Just like Caster’s supporters, my dad and our parents were “outraged by the questions and request for testing.” We all had submitted birth certificates as part of the registration. My dad told them in no uncertain terms that they had no good reason to question us, short hair and superior softball skills weren’t evidence of gender. No one would be singled out, he made clear. If there were to be any exams at all, then every girl would have an exam, and if that happened then they could count on a lawsuit as well. We watched in awe as my dad defended us, defended our right to be that good at softball and be girls at the same time. The tournament commissioner apologized, there were no exams, and we were back on the field for another game thirty minutes later.
That one experience contained lessons in so many things it is still hard to unpack them all even years later.
It was a lesson in standing up for yourself, for each other, and for what’s right and fair.
It was a lesson in bouncing back, we had to play again right away. But we lost, and who knows how much of that loss can be attributed to being rattled by it all.
It was a reminder that much of what we learn from playing sports has nothing to do with the sport itself.
And it was a hard lesson in how deep-rooted and combustible the assumptions about girls and boys, men and women are. Gender is still something people want to be black and white. Anything gray, any behavior or appearance just outside the prescribed lines, is tinder waiting for a spark.
This morning, Caster Semenya’s story flashed a spark on the tinder of my own bottled up emotions. Plus, her story is overlaid with the issue of race too. Some claiming that it is also “another example of demeaning Western attitudes toward black Africans, particularly women.”
So to Caster and her family and friends, I share your outrage regardless of the details, I hope your story gives us another chance to challenge everyone’s assumptions about gender and race and make some progress, and I have one piece of advice…
you might want to hire my dad.