Too soon to do a controversial topic?
This is going to be a tough one. (and long….sorry)
Just so you know, I really have no idea where this is going to go. How you’re feeling right now is exactly how I’m feeling as I type this. I honestly have no idea where the story is going, all I know is that I’m going to keep typing till I feel like it’s all been said.
Many of you know the drama that has unfolded in the sporting world as of late. The Caster Semenya and Mary Gregory stories have been flooding my social media feeds, and everyone in the free world has been chiming in on what they think should happen. I’ll let you get caught up with the Mary Gregory story on your own time so if you don’t know about this, stop now and get caught up. I’ll wait…..
When the Mary Gregory story first broke, I and many of the other 100%RAW executive were bombarded with angry emails from female lifters who were furious that we would allow a transgender female into our federation. To say these emails were angry is an understatement. I worked for 4 years as a customer service agent at a grocery store in university. I’ve had customers throw rotting turkeys at me, swear at me and a couple times we had to call the cops, but the emails I personally received were beyond that and from the sounds of it a few of the other executive members got worse. When the 100%RAW exec in the USA announced their new transgender division a couple days later, there was intense backlash from the LGBTQ Community, with many of our members openly voicing their displeasure on social media. So over the course of a week, we got shit on by one side, and then shit on by the other side. Those of you who know me know that I lost sleep over this issue.
Ok, so you know where we are now. When the dust had settled, 100%RAW had made the decision to create a transgender division as opposed to instituting a ban or dropping gender altogether. I was not entirely content with this option, but I could at least rationalize to a certain extent why the 100%RAW exec had chosen to go that way. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I believed dropping gender in sport would lead to the extinction of female athletics as we know it. I believed banning transgender athletes would have been cruel, and also a huge human rights issue, and I believed the IOC option was so costly as far as drug testing went that it would have been as prohibitive as a ban in the sport of powerlifting. I’ll explain what I mean by that.
To compete in the Olympics, a transgender female must (as per an excerpt from an IOC memo posted on www.outsports.com)
1. Declare that they are female and this declaration cannot be changed for sporting purposes for a minimum of four years.
2. The athlete must demonstrate her total testosterone levels have been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).
So when I say that this process would be as prohibitive as a ban, here’s what I mean. Requiring a Canadian athlete to prove her testosterone levels were consistently below the IOC threshold would mean that either the athlete or the federation would be paying for multiple drug tests per year. If WADA testing was used (as it would be in the IOC method), you’re looking at 3-4 tests per year, PER athlete at about $800 a test. Meaning that either the lifter, or the federation is on the hook for about $3000 in drug testing fees per year for as long as the lifter wanted to compete. In 100%RAW Canada, this would bankrupt our federation as we tend to give all our profit away to charities etc. If we passed that on to the lifter, well I think you can see why it’s as effective as a ban. It’s essentially a $3000/year tax just because you were born a certain way.
Going back to the new 100%RAW transgender division, the main problem with a transgender division is that if forces athletes to out themselves to the world, and in some places, outing yourself as a transgender athlete is akin to a death sentence. So once again, for closeted transgender lifters, is a kind of soft ban from competing in powerlifting.
So that is why I can justify (for now) why I think 100%RAW chose the least worst option (notice I don’t use the words “best option” here, as I really think this is a no win situation). I think it hurts the least amount of people for now, but that’s not good enough for me. I didn’t want to stop there. This issue isn’t going away and I wanted to make sure that the next time it came around, I had done all the homework I could to be as informed as possible. So I actively sought out outside help to educate me on both sides of the coin.
My first step was to contact as many organizations as I could on both sides of the argument. An organization called Fair Play For Women (fairplayforwomen.com) replied to my inquiries and provided me with some examples of how other countries are responding as well as their own take on the situation. Apparently in the UK, it’s ok to ban assigned male at birth transgender athletes from female only competition. I've actually gotten some significant flak for even contacting Fair Play For Women due to their viewpoints, but their voice is very close to the heated emails we got when the Mary Gregory case first came to light so for good or for bad, their message is the same as a large portion of the sporting community. The representative from Fair Play For Women then asked if I wanted to chat with their contacts in North America, and connected me with Larry Maile, head of USA Powerlifting. As you might have heard, USA Powerlifting went with a kind of soft ban. If you read their transgender policy on their website, they appear to allow transgender lifters with multiple caveats in place that make entry into their federation difficult for most transgender athletes. I spoke to Larry before the USA Powerlifting AGM and he was understandably nervous about the upcoming meeting and what it would bring.
I also spent time reading about Caster Semenya, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, Rachel McKinnon and how they were obliterating (maybe that’s too strong of a word) the female athletes in their chosen sport. That got me upset as I thought it felt very unfair to the 99% of female athletes out there who did not get the same exposure to testosterone in puberty. I started thinking about my three daughters and their various sports and wondered how they would feel if a transgender athlete blew them out of the water at a competition. They don’t win all the time right now anyways so would this be any different? Would they feel alright about it or would they be upset and give up on sport?
Fast forward to Wednesday May 15th, 2019. In my quest to talk to both sides of the coin, I got in touch with the Calgary Queer Art Society. My hope was to talk to people most affected by transgender policy in sport to hear their opinions, but I was not at all prepared for the encounter I was about to have. Before I tell you about the next part, let me give you the Cole’s Notes version of my upbringing.
I’m a white male (like Leave it to Beaver white….and equally as nerdy). I grew up in farm country in Southern Ontario. I think we had one African American student in our whole school and maybe a couple dozen other visible minorities. I don’t remember anyone being gay, although I found out later on that the first girl I ever kissed became a lesbian. I was so bad at kissing that I actually put a woman off men for life!!!! I know that’s really not what happened, but that kind of thing would have made for really funny 80’s sitcom TV episode.
I really wasn’t exposed to any culture outside my own little white-washed bubble till university, and even then it was still pretty white. I grew up in a time where Corporal Klinger dressed up in drag because he was “crazy”, and Tom Hanks made a name for himself on TV as man pretending to be a woman so that he and his friend (who was also in drag) could get cheaper rent in an all-female apartment building. There was Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and later on, Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire. I grew up in a world where transgender females were simply “Dudes dressed up as women”. It was done for comedic effect, or when a man wanted to cheat the system. If you read the comments section of any website where this is being discussed, this is the default comment from many male commenters when talking about transgender females in sport. “He’s just a dude who can’t hang with the REAL men”
“HE’s just trying to cheat the system!!!”
With all this being said, and how much I thought I’d grown as a person despite my upbringing, my heart stopped a little when a person named Aurora contacted me and wanted to meet up. I had been connected to her through a friend of a friend, and all I knew about her was that she was trans-identifying. We arranged to have lunch on Wednesday and I need to tell you I was really nervous leading up to the lunch. To my knowledge, I had never met a transgender female before and, if I’m being brutally honest, a large part of me was expecting a Klinger/Tootsie/Mrs Doubtfire combination. Boy was I wrong.
(Editorial note, I just re-read that last sentence “Boy was I wrong” and I can’t help but laugh at the double meaning in now possesses in the context of what I’m writing about)
Aurora was stunning to put it mildly. I would have easily passed her in the street without a second thought. And as our lunch progressed I was blown away at how wrong my preconceptions had been about what it means to be transgender. This wasn’t a “man in a dress”. This was a woman. 100%. Zero doubt in my mind. She spoke with a patience and understanding that really got through to me, and never once criticized me for stumbling over my words in an attempt to ask a question of a sensitive nature. As we talked and got to know each other a bit more, Aurora gave me the condensed version of her life and what she had gone through to get to this point. 6 years, and a staggering amount of money spent on surgeries later, she told me that she finally had the shitty body that everyone else got to have when they were born. What she meant by that is that none of us are 100% happy with our bodies. I’m too short, I have a big belly and no hair. But I didn’t have to pay anything to get to where I am today. Aurora has the same issues as anyone else when it comes to body image. She has scars like the rest of us, good spots, bad spots, indifferent spots, yet she had to damn near bankrupt herself to get where I got to for free.
What fascinated me the most were the stories she had about her transition. I hope I’m remembering these details correctly, but I believe she said it took 2 years before the effects of the HRT really started to assert themselves. 6 years on and she’s still experiencing changes. In Mary Gregory’s 100%RAW case, Mary had only been on HRT for 9 months according to her Instagram posts when she competed in May so I can see how the IOC’s requirement of at least a 1 year delay time is warranted and why Mary’s records shouldn’t stand at this stage in her transition. It takes the body time to adapt. Aurora told me about her experiences at her church, where as a man she used to move around iron candelabras to make room for church events. As a man, she could handle one by herself. As a woman 6 years post transition, she required help. The part of that story I found disheartening is that her fellow church goers initially thought she was faking when it became clear that she no longer possessed the strength to move them herself.
And she told me about the dangers she faces in public. One issue she has that I will never experience is fear of being hit on at a bar. For the record, I’ve never been hit on at a bar or really anywhere else but I imagine it’s supposed to feel flattering. But that’s not how Aurora felt. For her it was fear. Some men don’t take it well when they find out the women they’ve been chatting up at the bar is a “dude”. Aerosmith even wrote a song about it. Luckily, she’d never experienced physical violence herself in these situations, but is sounds like this is not the case with many individuals in the trans-identified community. When you hear about stuff like this, it really makes me realize how privileged I am. I’m a bald, white 270 pound powerlifter and I’m told I look quite intimidating (until you get to know me). I can sleep on the train in rush hour if I want to and know that no one’s going to mess with me. Hell, people barely sit with me on the train as it is, regardless if I’m awake or asleep. Most people give me a look, and then choose to stay standing.
One of the biggest impacts she had on me at lunch is when she asked me, “Do you remember what it was like to just be a normal boy”? Before I had a chance to think about my childhood, she hit me with the 1-2 punch combo that I’m still dealing with. “I don’t” she replied. And it dawned on me. Aurora has never been a normal boy. It’s not like she was a normal kid, running around, doing boy things and then all of a sudden thought “Hey, I’d like to be a girl now”. One of the most frequent things I hear when cisgender individuals are talking about LGBTQ people is that their lifestyle is a choice. I’ve never really believed that, and meeting with Aurora nailed it home. Aurora has been Aurora since she was born, it just took her a few more steps than the rest of us to get there. She’s not who she is today because she’s trying to cheat society in some way, or take the easy route. Her life has been infinitely harder than mine because she was born with a body that didn’t match who she was on the inside.
Let’s step back an examine ourselves for a minute. For me personally, I was born with a certain body, certain genes, and that’s what I have to work with. But technically I’ve cheated. I have enhanced myself to get an edge in life. When I was thinking about becoming an RCMP officer, I had laser eye surgery to make my eyes 20/20 to meet the physical standards of the RCMP. I modified myself through surgery to get an advantage over my competition. I also have sleep apnea, so I use a CPAP machine at night. Within 6 months of starting on CPAP therapy, my lifts went up by 20%. No joke, I legit gained 20% because I was finally getting the sleep I needed. But that’s another medical procedure I had to change my body to become more competitive. And I absolutely did it to improve my lifting. I make no excuses for the fact that it was my main motivator for getting a sleep machine, and it worked. Just last year, I had a long time hernia repaired, and since it has healed I’ve had a 30 point gain on my Wilks score because I can finally use my core correctly.
Do I get criticized for any of the things I’ve done to my body in an attempt to feel better and perform better? Well other than the fact that the CPAP machine has absolutely killed cuddling with my wife at night and scared the cat away, no one has given me any flak for my body modification choices. My modifications have given me a competitive edge over the old version of myself and to feel better in general, so why are my modifications ok, but Aurora’s aren’t?
People are born in all shapes, sizes and colours. Some people have huge advantages at birth, some people have huge disadvantages. Unless you’re lucky enough to get cast in Game of Thrones, dwarfism isn’t ideal for most people, while on the other side of the spectrum, if you’re born with tall genes and grow to be 7 feet tall, you’re more than likely in the NBA with a million dollar contract and a shoe deal. We punish one rare version of a human and celebrate another, even though they are both on the very edges of the bell curve of humanity with an equal percentage of the population. Caster Semenya is a prime example of this. Through no fault of her own, she was born with a unique combination of genes and anatomy that makes her a track god. Perhaps if she was male, she’d have a Nike Ad and her picture on a Gatorade bottle, but in this world we tell her she needs to chemically “dial it back” in order to compete. But how does this relate to the topic of allowing transgender lifters into sport in the gender they identify as?
Well, the common argument stands that post-pubescent transgender women have had the benefit of increased testosterone through their adolescence, and thus have an unfair advantage after transitioning. Transgender people make up 0.7% of the population from what I’ve read in many articles. The number of elite lifters in the world (male or female) is probably about that same percentage, maybe less. So I wonder what would happen if I held a meet next year for females only, offered a $5000 prize for best lifter, and then invited Jen Thompson to the meet. For those of you who don’t know, Jen Thompson is one of the greatest female powerlifters in the world today, and in this example I’m postulating that there is probably an equally likely chance that a transgender female, or Jen Thompson could enter my theoretical powerlifting meet. Jen’s best Wilks according to Open Powerlifting is 548 using the women’s coefficient. If I take her numbers and use the male coefficient on them I still get a 418 Wilks score. So Jen Thomson is part of the other 0.7% that naturally have abilities that would win her best MALE lifter at most local meets when being measured with the same standards as the males. We cheer and support the Jen Thompson’s of the world, but not the Aurora’s the Caster Semenya’s or the Mary Gregory’s.
I made a promise to Aurora that I would try to get off the fence on this issue. I’m afraid I have to break that promise for now as I really still don’t know what the correct thing to do is regarding transgender individuals in sport. The reason the Caster Semenya’s and Mary Gregory’s of the world are such a hot topic is because it’s showing the cracks in a model of sport that we thought used to serve us well. Males competed with males, females competed with females and everything was fair because those were the only two options. Now that we’re starting to realize that those two options aren’t the only ones, our sorting model no longer works, and as a powerlifter, I’m more than aware of what happens when a rule isn’t black and white (take the bench arch rule for example). Shades of grey in any rule book lead to arguing, disagreement and extreme beliefs on multiple fronts and it’s what happens when a system stops working. But if the current rules don’t work, what are the alternatives?
I used to be a Special Olympics coach, and one of the ways they try and make the playing field as fair as possible is through the use of divisioning. Divisioning is where a team or an athlete gets measured against other competitors in a round robin style of play, and then the teams or individuals are sorted by ability into divisions to make competition as fair as possible inside those divisions. Performance is tracked so no athlete can sandbag their way through the round robin to get into a lower division and then dominate. Any teams or individuals found to be sandbagging are removed from competition and I’m pretty sure additional punishments are incurred to discourage that behavior.
What would happen to sport if we stopped looking at gender and just based everything on pure performance? We currently use biology to division out the human population based on gender with the presumption that men are stronger than women. For the most part that’s true, but there are always exceptions. But what if we did a complete change and switched to divisions based on performance with gender not being a factor? In the sport of powerlifting, you’d set a total at a local meet, and then you’d get sorted for the larger National meets into 4-5 divisions based solely on performance? Anyone caught with a 30 point Wilks jump in one year would either get bumped up a division, or have to sit out the current year and re-qualify for next year in a higher division. Just spit-balling here, but that might be a viable alternative to the gendered approach we have now.
But even that adds problems. How do you drug test in a world where gender doesn’t matter anymore? Do you even need to? If hormone levels and testosterone ratios don’t matter anymore is there any point to banning PED’s? And where do we set the division caps? No matter where we set them, someone’s ending up at the bottom of their division and is getting screwed by the arbitrary categories. I’m not nearly as smart as I need to be to answer any questions relating to this option.
So that’s why I need to remain on the fence….for now. I see positives and negatives to all the arguments and I think I always will until we can achieve a paradigm shift in how we view sport.
This has been rather long winded, and for that I apologize so I’ll just conclude with the following thoughts.
Thought #1 - We need a better version of sport than we currently have today. I’m not sure there’s a structure that can provide 100% fairness to 100% of the people, but it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to find one. Maybe it means better science. Maybe it means dropping gender altogether. But it’s a fight worth fighting to get everyone who wants to compete into the sport of their choice, but fairly, and with respect to ALL the athletes in that division.
Thought #2 – Piggybacking off of thought #1, the very concept of sport is unfair. There can’t be a winner if there aren’t losers, and losing sucks. But this isn’t stock car racing where all the cars have to be the same (even though Robert Duval in Days of Thunder emphatically stated that “there ain’t nothing stock about a stock car”). We aren’t all given the same toolkit to work with in life, be it biological, environmental, or financial, and so for some individuals, the world of sport will always be unfair. So how do we make a naturally unfair environment as fair as possible without damaging it?
Thought #3 – We need more people like Aurora in this world, but first we need a world where more people like Aurora can make their presence known. I can’t even begin to wonder how much harder life has been on Aurora than it needed to be, but I’m not sure I would have faired as well had I been in her shoes. All I know is that, she’s an amazing person, and I’m a better person for having met her.