Here's To You, Mrs. Semenya
What we can learn from Caster Semenya's mother.
Posted August 23, 2009
It pains me to read the stories about the suspicions that South African runner, Caster Semenya, might really be male. Although mine was on a much smaller scale, I too felt the sting of gender misidentification in second grade following a short haircut that my mother tricked me into getting. In a few short snips I went from looking like Samantha Micelli to looking like I was in a Ramones cover band fronted by eight year-olds. That Sunday I was at church with my family when my18 year-old brother, Jimmy, ran into an old friend. The friend pointed in my direction and asked, "Is this your little brother?" I was wearing a skirt for crying out loud! I wanted to kill this jerk, (which was especially terrible since we were at church, but I guess on the positive side, I could have immediately received absolution following my rampage.) I can't even imagine the humiliation had this indignity been plastered all over the television and newspaper, "Elizabeth Beckwith, is she or isn't she? Her new haircut is raising suspicions. " My mother who had missed the exchange with my brother's friend, noticed I was upset on the walk back to the car. Humiliated, I re-enacted the scene for her. Always one to raise her children up and tear down any naysayers, she didn't miss a beat. "That guy's an idiot. Did you see his girlfriend? He doesn't know what gorgeous is!" I felt comforted by my mother's unspoken logic that "only an idiot would not recognize that I was a pretty little girl." (Then I went home, locked myself in my bedroom and rehearsed a fictional future meeting with my brother's friend in which I was the most famous movie star in the world and he was lurking in a corner, weeping at my beauty and his horrendous error in judgment.)
Tearing down the people who hurt your children should be one of the bedrocks of parenthood. I was pleased with the response of Caster Semenya's mother when she told the press, "They're just jealous of my daughter." Damn right. I love that. This sentiment was one that was expressed countless times by my own mother during adolescence. If someone made fun of me for having a big butt, "She's just jealous ‘cause she's got nothing back there. Men don't like that, believe me!" If a classmate mocked me for having a funny voice, "He's just jealous ‘cause you're so smart!" When I was plastered with food on a daily basis by a mean boy in my class, "He probably has a crush on you and is angry because you're too good for him! Well guess what, he's right!"
I like to think the Mrs. Semenya gave similar pep talks to Caster. Sure, for the press she left it at "they're just jealous," but I like to imagine that behind closed doors she elaborated on this. "You should be flattered, they can't beat you the normal way so they have to invent crap!" Or, "They think you're a boy ‘cause they don't have any balls themselves! They want to find out what real balls looks like! Idiots!" (Okay, so maybe this is closer to what my Brooklyn bred mother would have said than the words of Mrs. Semenya, but you get the idea.)
Mrs. Semenya reminds us that the best way to build up our children, is to tear down those who hurt them.