Martyring the ‘Ballbreakers’

Shrine in memory of Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack

Last Wednesday, August 28th, residents of the 200 block of Q St. NW in Washington, DC were shocked by a brutal assault against two women, one of whom was killed.  Violence is nothing alien to DC, the District was once known as the ‘murder capital’ of the U.S., but this act stands out.  The motive, officially, is unknown.  The act occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon in broad daylight after the assailant had followed both women for several blocks and was exceptionally brutal. Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack was stabbed in throat; her injuries were fatal. The women involved were also both African-American, male-to-female transgender, were possibly been sex workers and there were supposedly several anti-LGBT epithets used by the assailant. The scene was also only a few blocks from a local transgender health center.  Yet, the motive is said to be unclear.

What is clear, other than that the attacker saw them as less than human, is that the media is not entirely sure how to talk about these women.  Different news outlets used several different ways of referring the Mack’s and the other victim’s gender.  A local television affiliate of Fox utilizes no uniform language at all.  Aside from one line mentioning that the victims were transgender women, the piece contains quotes utilizing exclusively male pronouns and refers to Mack by her birth name, Joshua, while focusing almost exclusively on the reactions of neighbors.  The focus is not on the victims but rather fear and the violent disruption of a normally tranquil area.  Coverage by the Washington Post, however, is a step worse.  The Post article refers to the women as transgender people and biological men living as women throughout the piece, again only referring to Mack by her birth name.  The writer, Paul Duggan, seems to be scraping for some shred of objectivity, but his own discomfort is readily apparent.  On the other end of the news spectrum, the Washington Blade, a local LGBT newspaper, utilizes Mack’s taken name and gender while focusing much more on what happened to these women, family’s and friends’ reactions and violence against transgender people more generally. All of these articles relate to the same incident but provide radically different information.  The kicker is that all of this criticism is possible after all of the articles, save Chibarro’s article in the Blade, had already been re-edited.  The original versions all referred to Mack and her friend as “transgender men”. News articles that blatantly disregard the gender identity of Mack and the other victim are no less policing than the act of violence itself.  One is simply more subtle, hiding behind science and journalistic integrity, and reinforces the fears that feed these acts of violence.

On the other side of the world, the media and science are policing gender more overtly.  Over the last couple of weeks, Caster Semenya has been ever-present in the international press, not because of her 800m win which would have garnered little attention in mainstream press, but because her sex was under scrutiny.  The media’s scrutiny and judgment of Semenya is more obvious perhaps because it is not tempered by a major act of violence.  But words are weapons and they feed already active fires that are raging against women outside of and within the LGBT community.  Semenya was required to take a gender test in order to be eligible to compete because she did ‘too well’ in recent competitions.  Such athleticism is not thought possible for women and Semenya’s muscular body was used as additional evidence to justify the testing.  The fact that she is a professional athlete and that most female athlete’s are muscular does not seem to dissuade the judging officials.

This case is disturbing and unsurprising for several reasons.  First, Semenya’s sex is called into question due to the combination of her athleticism and her apparently masculine or nonfeminine presentation and features.  The assumption is transparent; women are supposed to be soft, white and frail.  It is an assumption and argument that has been at the core of colonial politics and postcolonial politics.  There is actually not a chance in hell that Meadows would have been tested had she ran as well as Semenya did.  Second, Semenya’s family, like President Obama in a surprisingly parallel situation with the birthers, was able to furnish a birth certificate.  However, the documentation provided by a poorer black community in South Africa is apparently not reliable enough to be considered proof of the girl’s sex.  Would it have been has the runner come from a wealthy, Western and white family?  Third, the media has chosen to not only vilify and attempt to embarrass this young woman, but has likewise conflated several unrelated and yet entirely related issues: sex, gender and sexual orientation.  The latter two categories are not actually relevant to the IAAF’s argument of fairness.  The only thing they relate to is heteronormative notions of what it means to be a woman.

The results of Semenya’s test later revealed that she had 3 times the ‘normal’ female amount of testosterone in her system.  This was released on the same day as a BBC article claiming that high levels of testosterone turn women into “risk takers” and “ballbreakers”.  The implication is that ‘masculine’ women are practically not even women and that only masculinity can and should be able to compete in our society. Thus, by questioning her sex so publicly and utilizing gossip and conjecture as evidence, the media has placed Semenya on the 21st century’s version of the pillory.  She is meant to be an example for all young girls, especially if they are darker skinned and athletic, of what they can’t be: strong. In the same way, Tyli’a Mack was publicly murdered to warn against those born male being anything other than hypermasculine.

Caster Semenya

(Photo Credit 1: Washington’s Other Monuments) (Photo Credit 2: John Giles / PA / The Guardian)

About Megan Foster

Megan Foster, an advocate for and ally of formerly incarcerated women, is the Mobile Programs Manager at Friends of Guest House, in northern Virginia.