Caster Semenya’s IAAF tribulations have cast a spotlight on the subject of gender, identity and fluidity. Is it set in stone? Marchelle Abrahams explores what gender neutrality means:
At first glance you might think: “What a pretty girl. Look at all that hair.” But when you look closely, you will realise it’s a boy. It’s just that he has long hair.
Such is the interesting life of child model, Farouk James, whose big hair has led to him being one of the most popular children on social media and has seen him walking in fashion shows, including London Fashion Week.
Model agencies urged his mother to cut his hair when he was signed up, because it “wasn’t acceptable” for boys to have long hair. His mother, Bonnie, refused.
“We have a lot of positive messages to share with people… to be confident to be different, embrace who you are. And especially with boys. Every boy is entitled to have long hair,” Bonnie told Insider.
We now live in a society where people do not subscribe to the gender they were assigned at birth. Miley Cyrus, Amandla Stenberg, music duo FAKA, rapper Mx Blouse and Soli Philander identify as gender nonconforming.
Actresses Kate Hudson, Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie have chosen to take a genderless approach to parenting.
“I raise and will continue to raise my children, both my boys and girl, to feel free to be exactly who they want to be,” Hudson wrote on Instagram.
A few weeks ago, all eyes were on Caster Semenya as her fight against the IAAF’s female eligibility regulations started a five-day hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland.
A statement issued by Semenya’s legal team said she believed that “she and other women affected by the regulations should be permitted to compete in the female category without discrimination”, and that they should be “celebrated for their natural talents as are all other athletes with genetic variations. The IAAF’s regulations do not empower anyone. Rather, they represent yet another flawed and hurtful attempt to police the sex of female athletes”.
Speaking to millennials, we found that most are accepting and actually call for a gender-fluid society.
“It also makes it easier for people to express themselves without the constraints of gender norms,” says Theolin Tembo, 26.
“In relation to Caster, it’s unfortunate that she has to be put under such a spotlight as a woman just because she appears ‘more masculine’.”
For 24-year-old Jasmine Jacobs, it all comes down to taking extra precaution about pronouns and identities. She believes people should educate themselves. “Ask what someone wants to be identified as. Not knowing would make the conversation awkward and put you at risk of offending that person.”
But is society ready to accept gender neutrality?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who later identify as transgender or non-binary know they are different from as young as 8 years old.
Dr Gordon Isaacs, of the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP), believes schools should be providing nurturing environments for children struggling with their gender identity.
“Transgender children are impacted on by peers and teachers, especially in the formative years,” said Isaacs, who has more than 40 years’ experience in the field of clinical social work.
“If the nurturing school is safe, consistent and linked to parental and family systems, it has much influence in assisting a transgender child to factor in resilience, self-esteem and a sense of feeling congruent with the self.”
Some Western Cape schools seem to be warming up to the idea and are being encouraged to protect LGBTQI+ pupils. “Student Governing Bodies are dealing with this issue on a case-by-case basis,” said Western Cape Education Department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond.
As to be expected, not everyone is warming up to the idea.
Reverend Oscar Peter Bougardt is a controversial character on the South African landscape. He’s been billed as the nation’s defiant transphobic pastor. He brings up the issue of sexual assault and violating children’s privacy. “We already have to deal with such a lot a rapes, sexual assault and even murders at schools. Now the education department wants to give males the opportunity to use the same restrooms as girls,” said Bougardt.
But as schools and society are slow to put strategies in place, the fashion world is quick to fly the gender-nonconforming flag.
Soweto-born fashion designer Rich Mnisi explores topics such as race, sexuality and identity with his gender-fluid eponymous label. In his first campaign in 2014 he cast Elle van der Burg, a transgender model and activist.
Canadian pop star Justin Bieber has launched his streetwear label called Drew. The collection features unisex rompers, oversized pants, hoodies and sweatshirts.
The onset of gender-neutral beauty brands marks a shift towards advocacy. Fluide is a collection of colourful, cruelty-free makeup for all gender identities and skin tones. Barcelona brand Aex Carro is unisex. JECCA was created by makeup artist Jessica Blackler after realising there were no makeup brands specifically for transgender people.
Ultimate Frisbee is set to be the new gender-neutral team sport for 2019. Also known as Simply, the non-contact team sport started out in the 1960s in the US. Today it is played by more than 7.5 million people across the globe.
Toy retailers are also thinking beyond gender conformity by replacing their pink and blue toy aisles with gender neutral “kids” toy aisles.
Manufacturers are releasing new products that are more inclusive and genderless.
Mattel, for example, debuted Ken doll with a manbun. Lego, too, has licensed brands such as Star Wars, Marvel and DC Superheroes for a more diverse range.
Bonnie is happy that she didn’t cut her son’s hair.
“Nowadays, people are trying to get that sort of length hair. It’s really cool fashion companies want that look. They want that androgynous look to be a little bit different.”