L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Do you remember track star Gail Devers, with her absurdly long nails? I noticed her for the first time in Atlanta, on television during the 1996 Olympics, where she one her third gold. Then, her nails were painted gold to match the medal she had yet to win. Eight years later, in Athens, her nails were blue. That she had those nails at all made her seem smarter than her competitors, like she alone had figured out how to bend norms and regulations to make her body entirely her own. “I run with my feet,” she once said, meaning it didn’t matter what flourishes she had on her hands.
I thought of Devers when I read that Caster Semenya, the 2009 World Champion in the 800 meters race who was hindered from competing in 2010 when huge improvement in her time and her butch appearance made officials and others question her gender, has a new coach, a woman from Mozambique. She will no longer be working with the men who managed her as her career began, when she was often going off with other racers to prove to them her femaleness: ‘”They are doubting me,’ she would explain to her coaches, as she headed off the field toward the lavatory.”
Semenya has long nails, too, or at least she did when writer Ariel Levy tracked her down for a brief moment in 2009, not long after she had been subjected to a series of uncomfortable, publicly debated gender tests. “She wore sandals and track pants and kept her hood up,” said Levy. “She didn’t look like an eighteen-year-old girl, or an eighteen-year-old boy. She looked like something else, something magnificent.”
She looks magnificent in the photo artist Adam McEwan used in one of the fake obituaries he made in 2011, too: her face seems calm and unfazed but her right pointer finger is up, signalling, it seems, that she is number one. It’s perhaps the crudest of the obits by McEwan, who pieces together news articles about people who are actually still living but leads in to them with the words “has died,” then prints his “reports” on a large scale. He completed Semenya’s when the runner was barely 20 and controversy still surrounded her. The lead said, “World Champion middle distance runner whose gender came under intense public scrutiny” and descriptors throughout were painful: “even when young teachers sometimes thought she was a boy because of her liking sports and their company,” “she was considering boycotting the presentation of her metal to protest her treatment. She had to be persuaded…”, “It was unclear if she would have run professionally again.”
McEwan never specifies a cause of death, and it is impossible not to imagine that, had it been real, her death would have been somehow a result of the “intense public scrutiny” and the crassness of officials, especially as Semenya comes from a place where gender deviance is often seen as criminal.
When Levy tracked down Semenya that day in 2009, she told the runner she was writing about her. Semenya wanted to know why:
“Because you’re the champion,” I said.
She snorted and said, “You make me laugh.”
No,” she said. “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t say to anyone how I feel or what’s in my mind.” I said I thought that must suck.
“No,” she said, very firmly. Her voice was strong and low. “That doesn’t suck. It sucks when I was running and they were writing those things. . . Now I just have to walk away.”
If she wanted just to perform as an athlete and to share only that performance with the world, she was right to be wary of talk. Whatever personal insight or information she shared would always be used, whether intentionally or not, as evidence of what she was or wasn’t (male, female, androgynous, aggressive, charlatan, sincere).
An exhibition in Chinatown right now captures this conflict between performance and personhood in a quiet, compelling way. You walk in to see images of women high jumpers mid-air, their backs arched and their knees parallel to or above their heads, which arch back toward the camera, so that the intense, sometimes pained focus of expressions is unmissable. The images hang on the wall, over string that’s threaded across the room, or suspended inside wooden hoops. Another series of images is domestic: a dog, a cityscape, a bedroom, a bowling alley, another bedroom. Text that accompanies the installation, a collaboration at Young Art between Cara Benedetto and Davida Nemeroff, refers to “a game that wont stop no matter how many tests are changed” and stats that “become important when we number pain.”