Saturday, March 21, 2009

Middlesex on the tennis court?

Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex” is a fictional account of the life of a hermaphrodite raised as a girl who discovers in adolescence that she is actually a boy. Calliope is the grandchild of a brother and sister who secretly marry after escaping a Greek island attacked by the Turks in 1922. Calliope’s confusion grows after she embarks on an erotic relationship with “the Object”, a striking teenaged girl in her class. Caught in the act by the girl’s brother (who himself is lusting after our hero/ine), Calliope starts off running and gets hit by a car. The true nature of her sexuality is discovered in the emergency room, and sets her off on a trek to find himself.

And now comes news that we have our own Calliope in the world of tennis. German tennis player Sarah Gronert (photo left) was apparently born with both male and female genitalia. Three years ago, at age 19, she underwent surgery to remove the male organs and has been legally certified as a woman. Gronert successfully petitioned the WTA to be allowed on the women’s tour.

But some in the tennis world are now asking, is this fair? And, is she really a woman? Coach Schlomo Tzoref thinks that she is not. After Gronert handily beat his player, Julia Glushko, eventually winning the ITF Raanana tournament in Israel, Tzoref observed, “There is no girl who can hit serves like that, not even Venus Williams…This is not a woman, it's a man. She does not have the power of a woman and no woman has such a technique.”

Tennis is not without its history of gender-related controversies. Back in 1977 the former Richard Raskind successfully sued the USTA to allow him to compete as a woman following gender reassignment surgery two years earlier that resulted in his new identity as a woman named Renee Richards. Richards’ legal success was hailed as a landmark victory for transsexuals everywhere.

As a young man, Raskind had had significant success as a tennis player, even captaining the Yale team to tennis victories. As a woman, Richards also enjoyed success as a professional tennis player, particularly in doubles where she made it to the finals of the US Open (with Betty Ann Stuart) and to the semi-finals in mixed doubles (with Nastase). Her highest rank was 20.

But part of the problem for Richards (photo right), as it may also be for Gronert, is that the public never fully accepted her as a woman. She was forever the “transsexual” Renee Richards. And this is not just a semantic issue. It has to do with the subtle distinction between embracing versus acceptance.

Furthermore, Richards found out that once public interest in her as the world’s most famous transsexual started to fade, she was left to deal with the tatters of her life which included an ex-wife and three adolescent children whose father had suddenly become another mother well into his 40’s. Richards has gone on record as having many regrets over having lived the second half of her life as “a second-class woman” who never found fulfillment. She discourages others from pursuing her path.

Although their situations are not identical, the one facet that Gronert shares with Richards is the growing publicity over her situation. And while we have made great strides in the arena of gender awareness, there is much about which we remain ignorant. How does the brain switch gender? How is one’s self-identity affected by hormones? Is it just biology that makes a man a man and a woman a woman? How do the Calliopes of this world navigate the morass of gender confusion to define a healthy feminine (or masculine) self?

Gronert is currently ranked 619. With each tournament win, her situation will attract more allegations of unfairness, the assumption being that her masculine musculature gives her an advantage among the other women. Of course she could point out that there are women like Amelie Mauresmo who are far more muscled and masculine-looking than she may ever be. But that does not silence the critics because Mauresmo as a gay woman has attracted her own share of snide commentary.

I hope for her own sake that Gronert is not only a strong woman but that she also has the support of people who love her. She will need it as she will undoubtedly face the kind of derision experienced by Richards before and after her brief phase as a media darling. Already the sporting website, Fanhouse, is claiming mistreatment by other players. Gronert’s wikipedia page had to be deleted because of the number of abusive postings it attracted. And this is probably just the beginning.