Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | September 20, 2009
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The sexuality genie is out of the box

Glenda Simms, Contributed

Gleaner writer Mel Cooke continues to stretch our social imagination and challenge the Jamaican society to rethink its predisposition to pretend that we have the final answer on the most profound and complex aspect of the human condition - our sexual identity.

In the September 13 edition of The Gleaner, Cooke replaced the second page socialites and highlighted a few of the issues that are currently being discussed in the rum bars, the beauty parlours and on the verandahs of the not-so-high-and-mighty.

The page carried an article which asked the question: 'Semenya - male or female?' The context of this discussion carried in a report out of Johannesburg suggested that, at all levels of the South African society, the passion and empathy for the mental state of 18-year-old Caster Semenya is well understood. We can all imagine how the glare and disrespect of the powerful and mighty in the global sporting village is affecting Caster's immediate family, especially her mother.

it's a girl

Every woman who has given birth can flash back to the moment when her child moved down the birth canal to see the light of day and received the first slap on its backside to solicit the celebrated first scream of the human child. This event might have taken place in a small well-lit modern public hospital facility, a private birthing home with doctors, nurses and forceps or in a mud hut attended by a traditional healer and the women of the village. The setting is irrelevant. In the vast majority of birthing moments worldwide, the first question posed by the birth mother to the person who delivered the child is, "Nurse, what kind of baby is it?"

We know for sure that Caster Semenya's mother asked that question at the time of her birth and we know without a doubt, that the 'birthing one' looked at the baby's genitalia, saw a vagina and said, "Mama it's a girl."

Against this biological definition, Caster Semenya was a girl in her village, in her school and in her church. Her peers and her family members perhaps noted that she did not like 'girly' things. She loved to run and prance and compete with the boys and she was, like many strong-willed and accomplished young girls, a typical 'tomboy'.Semenya's athletic abilities brought her to the attention of the world. She dashed, like a gazelle ahead of the 'girly-girly' athletes and won in record time the 800m race in Berlin on August 19.

She won!

Had Semenya lost the race, her name would not be on anybody's lips. She won! According to the report out of Johannesburg, "Her dramatic improvement in times, muscular build and deep voice immediately sparked the speculation about her sex." In other words, the vagina was not enough to make her woman. It is only enough if we keep our heads low and do not try to excel, especially in the arenas in which men have set the standards.

It is interesting to note that Mel Cooke has alerted the Jamaican public to the possibility of our women footballers being requested to do a sex test. This idea, he says, is based on a number of behavioural patterns exhibited by some of these young women. Apparently, they dress like men, move like men and produce language that could rival the most foul-mouthed men.

It would appear that in this traditionally male-conceived and dominated sport, girls have no choice but to shed the trappings of the femininity that has been prescribed by society over time.

Girl footballers' role models are the young men who bring glory and money to their countries. Traditionally, the girls have gathered on the sidelines waving their pompoms as they cheer on the boys. The transition from pompom wavers to serious footballers who challenge opposing teams from other cultures and other geographical regions must be quite a challenging psychological shift for young women and girls.

In the efforts to shed definitions of femininity as prescribed by the patriarchal system, women and girls must be taught to find new ways of developing a sense of self, a voice linked to their inherent strengths and creativity, a mind unfettered by negativity and a spirituality rooted in the collective consciousness of generations of ancestors who laid the blueprint for the positive aspects of contemporary life.

In order to balance the nonsensical conversation about the Jamaican woman who dares to re-define her persona, Mel Cooke also featured 'proud men in skirts' and described Rassrod, who struts his stuff in a beautiful skirt and matching top above his beautifully honed mid-riff. With long braids, natural jewellery and a burlap fez, Rassrod proudly displays his masculinity in a skirt.

men in skirts

Those of us who have been raised in the Anglican Church wonder what is so strange about men in skirts. We have seen pastors, priests and bishops dressed in long frocks, fancy fezzes, braided sashes and other gold-trimmed regalia.

I was confirmed and inducted into the traditions of the Church when I was 12 years old. During this mysterious ceremony, I secretly wondered what was under the bishop's skirt. I never found out because I did not have the courage to ask him or the stone-faced women and men who administered at this ceremony.

Later on in life, I visited Bangladesh and noted that hundreds of poor men in Dhaka moved in and out of traffic in their skirts. No one mistook them for girls.

This bringing home of the Caster Semenya story to the Jamaican scene is both enlightening and challenging. Perhaps the society will, for the first time, be forced to deal with human sexuality in an intelligent and less hysterical mode.

Issue 29, April 2006 of Policy Briefing, which comes out of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex focused on sexuality and development. In this document, sexuality is defined as, "a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction".

All aspects of human sexuality are "influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors".

sexual rights of citizens

Within this broadly defined context, it is important for government and civil society agencies and actors to understand and respect the sexual rights of every citizen within the boundaries of nation states. These rights include:

High standards of health, including access to sexual and reproductive health care service;

The right to seek and impart information in relation to sexuality;

The right to informed and non-judgmental sexual education;

The respect for one's choice of his or her adult sexual partner;

The right of adults to be sexually active or not;

The right to consensual adult sexual relationships;

The right to consensual marriage with those of marriageable age, as defined in the constitution of the state;

The right of adults to decide whether or not and when to have children;

The right to live in a state in which human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.

Within this broad framework of rights, the nation state of Jamaica must recognise that while most persons are defined as men and women/male and female, there are others who do not fit this plurality. These categories of persons are designed by the same Great Spirit who designed the vagina and the penis - the major marker of male and female. The mysteries of the Creator are profound and beyond the complete comprehension of mere mortals.

We who consider ourselves as the standard-bearers of the right kind of human sexuality might need to take another look at the basis of our arrogance, exclusivity and predisposition to think that our God appointed us to understand all the reasons for our diversity.

The genie is out of the box - let the dialogue begin!

Dr Glenda P. Simms is a gender expert and consultant. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com

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