In the early 1990s, seventeen-year-old Nancy Navalta burst into Philippine track and field, running the 100 meter dash at 11.44 seconds. It’s an even more amazing feat considering how green she was. Nancy had no training. She just ran on sandy beaches with a sack of rocks slung over her shoulders.
Newspapers lauded this daughter of a fisherman, this girl who went from being a stonepicker from Luna to star athlete. Her early wins made her eligible to join the national training program. Some commentators began to talk about the Atlanta Olympics.
Nancy never did get to Atlanta. The idea that a female newcomer can run so fast, coupled with features like her “flat chest,” “muscled physique,” and a “wispy mustache” raised suspicions that Nancy Navalta was male.
“Nobody noticed me when I was losing,” Nancy later said in a 2004 interview.* “But when I started winning, they began questioning my gender.”
She was forced to undergo medical tests. Then came the Philippine Sports Commission ruling that Nancy is “genetically male.”
Jennifer Finney Boylan’s column makes relevant points regarding the inherent flaws of gender testing at sports competitions. “They measure maleness and femaleness by the wrong yardsticks, and in the process, they ruin the lives of the innocent.”
I imagine that Nancy, who now works as a college track coach, agrees. “No one even bothered to find out how I felt about the situation,” she said. “The nation feasted on me in a mad scramble for the juicy parts.”
And scramble for “juicy parts” they did. The newspapers that praised her humble origins and hard work turned malicious. Articles talked of her “undeveloped penis” and the absence of a uterus and ovaries. The best hope for Philippine women’s sports, they wrote, was a man.
“I am a woman,” Nancy countered. “It’s cruel to say that I’m not.”
But Nancy never got to run in competition again. Local officials added that Nancy was advised by the International Amateur Athletic Federation not to compete as a man or a woman, unless she undertook “corrective measures.”
“I hope Nancy will understand this decision and go on quietly with his life,” said then sports commissioner Monico Puentabella. “I hope this will end it all so that we can tackle bigger problems in sports.”**
The purpose of the genetic tests, writes Jennifer Boylan, is “to impose a binary upon the messy continuum of gender.” And herein again, we see the rigidity of social stereotypes, and the tenuous hold marginalized Filipinos have on bodily and sexual autonomy. Ideally, men should be virile and macho. Women, even modern working women, should be various iterations of Maria Clara. Those who live outside these spaces negotiate a fraught existence.
For example, this article talks about the social acceptance of baklas or gay men in the Philippines, including flamers. But it is precisely in this space that queerness is tolerated in the Philippines — in certain clubs, in movies where gay characters are meant to be laughed at, as targets of scorn.
Consider a Manila doctor’s suicide a decade ago, a suicide that was attributed to stress. But in the hospital where he worked, there was talk. That even though he tried to blend in, everyone, especially that doctor, knew he was “not normal.”
Consider how it’s not too uncommon to hear Pinoys express a general tolerance for gay men, but a distrust or even fear of lesbian women.
In the Philippines, you get no sympathies for straying outside spaces. Gay men could lip-synch in clubs, but should not be doctors. Gay men could “dress” gay and “act” gay, but should not have sex. And lesbian women? The accepted spaces for them are even tinier, since they’re not seen as objects of curiosity and entertainment — the narrow spheres where gay men are tolerated.
So where does that leave women like Nancy Navalta, as well as other people who could have intersex conditions? Why do we feel the need for neat categories? How could it have seemed acceptable to violate a teenager’s bodily autonomy by subjecting her to specious medical tests? Why did it seem appropriate to deny Nancy’s womanhood, to demand she get surgery to “correct” her gender, to ridicule her because of our own refusal to live with ambiguity?
More than a decade after she stopped competing, Nancy is a track coach to young athletes, both male and female. She hopes to help her family and her community of stonepickers in Luna. She hopes to find true love. And she will do all of these as a woman.
The only reliable gender test, writes Jennifer Finney Boylan, is “the triumphant fact of a life lived as a woman.” Nancy is hard at work on that life, one free from the judgment of strangers. If there’s any justice at all, it is in these endeavors that she will find triumph.
*quotes from Nancy Navalta taken from the article “Still on Track, Despite the Heartaches” by Maria Congee S. Gomez, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Sept. 19, 2004.
**This comes more than a decade late, but Puentabella? Fuck you.