She's Got The Strength, But Who Has The Power?

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Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: jayceeisalive/Instagram, Shutterstock

JayCee Cooper was looking forward to her first sanctioned USA Powerlifting meet in her home state of Minnesota when she received word, just a month before the event, that she wouldn’t be allowed to compete.

The e-mail from Kristopher Hunt, USAPL’s Therapeutic Use Exemption Committee chair, read in part: “Male-to-female transgenders (sic) are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport as it is a direct competitive advantage.”

This decision came as a surprise to Cooper, who had checked USAPL’s rulebook for anything regarding transgender competitors. All she had found was that the International Powerlifting Federation, of which USAPL is a part, had adopted the International Olympic Committee’s consensus on transgender inclusion in sport, which allows transgender people to compete in the gender division that matches their gender identity, with some restrictions.


“I was definitely taken aback, because I didn’t see any rules or anything to suggest I wouldn’t be eligible,” Cooper said. “But knowing the political climate, knowing the controversy of trans athletes in the larger sense, I wasn’t super-surprised.”

Cooper is well aware of intense and discriminatory rhetoric that currently surrounds the very existence of transgender people. There are states and school districts attempting to restrict the bathrooms transgender individuals can use, medical insurance companies denying coverage for gender reassignment surgery and hormones that are necessary to their very health and well-being, and the recent decision by the Trump administration to ban transgender military troops from serving. And as with all contentious political issues, this too spills over into the world of sport.


When it comes to transgender athletes, discussions can get lost in the weeds quickly: Talk of testosterone measurements “in serum per nmol/L,” bone density, and muscle mass, are all measurements of certain human physical characteristics that for one reason or another spell to some an “unfair advantage.” But the example of Cooper and USA Powerlifting shows that on one level, the whole messy argument seems to boil down to a fairly simple question: What does gender really have to do with strength?

No one by virtue of their sex or gender identity alone is capable of performing at the level of an elite athlete. Women’s bodies are all different from each other. Brittney Griner, the leading shot-blocker in the WNBA, is 6-foot-9 (and, oh yeah, when she first started dominating her game there were plenty who questioned her gender, too). Caster Semenya is currently being forced by the IAAF’s Court of Arbitration to medically alter her naturally occurring levels of testosterone simply because they don’t match an arbitrary idea of where a woman’s testosterone levels should be. All athletes, regardless of gender identity, genitalia at birth, hormone levels, or anything else, have some advantages and disadvantages amongst themselves—the whole point of sports is to let that play out on a playing field, or a court, or a platform. Right?


JayCee Cooper has always been a competitive athlete. She was a junior national champion in curling and a collegiate rower. But when she came out as a transgender woman, she left sports behind for a while, which was incredibly difficult but, she felt, necessary. “For me it felt like a matter of safety at the time,” she said. “And wanting to give myself the emotional space to develop.”

Later, Cooper found roller derby, one of the few sports that welcomes transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people with open arms at the national governing level. She loved it. She felt like she’d found a home again. Then, she broke her ankle.


Part of her healing process included physical therapy, which had her lifting weights again. She started working out with her brother, who did Crossfit, and powerlifting and strength training regularly. She was considering finding a way to compete within her newfound hobby, but the Crossfit Games were denying eligibility to transgender athletes, so she turned to powerlifting.

“I was aware that there might be this hypermasculinity and stigma against trans people throughout the strength sport world,” Cooper said. “But I started to look for the more inclusive part of the sport—within anything you can find pockets of community.”


For Cooper, that came in the form of a non-sanctioned powerlifting meet called Pull for Pride, organized by Shannon Wagner, a woman in Brooklyn who wanted to raise money for vulnerable people and give women, queer, trans, and non-binary folks a place to lift in the wake of the 2016 election. “That drew me to powerlifting competitively, to see an inclusive environment for queer and trans people,” she said. At the June 2017 meet, her first time participating, “it was game over, I had hearts in my eyes and I just knew I wanted to start competing.”

In November 2018, Cooper decided to take the leap from unsanctioned meets and signed up for two USA Powerlifting state meets in Minnesota, in January and February. Since one of the hormone replacement therapy medications she takes, spironolactone, is on the World Anti-Doping Agency list of prohibited substances, she knew she’d need to apply for an exemption in order to participate.


According to the IOC guidelines regarding transgender inclusion in sport, which have been in place since 2004, granting therapeutic use exemption certificates to athletes who are taking hormone therapy as part of transition is standard practice. But USAPL replied with a blanket ban not just on Cooper’s medication, but on all transgender women athletes, full stop.

Cooper immediately asked for an explanation from Hunt, the committee chair who emailed her an initial denial. It took more than a month to get a response claiming that her petition was being denied due to precedent, current International Powerlifting Federation standard, and “[t]he fact that transgender male to female individuals having gone through male puberty confer an unfair competitive advantage over non-transgender females due to increased bone density and muscle mass from pubertal exposure to testosterone.” Hunt added “there is a subcommittee looking into this specific issue presently.”


Cooper responded to Hunt with thorough documentation of the IPF’s own constitution detailing their adherence to the “IOC Consensus of Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism,” the detailed (and controversial) rules that state that so long as an athlete has declared her gender identity as female, does not change that declaration for at least four years, and has a total testosterone level in serum below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to competition and throughout competitive eligibility, they are eligible to compete in women’s competitions.

Despite Cooper’s compliance with IPF’s published rules—which still represent an invasion of privacy that other female athletes don’t have to submit to—her eligibility was officially denied and a new rule was added to the USAPL website denying eligibility to all trans women athletes and any trans masculine athletes who take testosterone as part of their hormone replacement therapy. (USAPL did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)


In February, during the Minnesota State Championships where Cooper had hoped to compete, a protest ensued. Several lifters, men and women, timed out their nine lifts, standing silently on the platform during their time to lift instead of competing. Sitting in the stands, Cooper was moved by the act of solidarity. “It was hard to be there and watch people compete knowing the platform was not open to me, so to see people time out their lifts, it felt like they were carrying a piece of me and a piece of the trans community with them,” she said. “I’m thankful that there are people willing to speak out. Because silence won’t get us anywhere.”

The federation did not agree. In the USAPL’s next monthly newsletter, they criticized protests at meets. “While we respect the right of others to hold opinions different than ours with regard to participation, disrupting a competition and impacting other participants performance and enjoyment will never be acceptable.”


The newsletter also included an update from the organization’s legal counsel, who expanded on the rule banning transgender athletes. “Allowing the male to female transgender athlete to compete against biological female athletes is contrary to the rights of biological females and to the drug testing rules of USA Powerlifting … While it might be emotionally provoking to demand the rights of a few, the rights of others—the athletes who wish to compete in an organization with rules that provide clean and fair sport—must also be considered.”

USA Powerlifting’s response to transgender athletes is head-spinning. The thing about all this talk equating hormone replacement therapy to doping, and the threat to “biological females,” and the “unfair advantages” of “male puberty, is that it’s based entirely on social perceptions of gender.


“There’s absolutely no scientific evidence at all that supports their position,” said Rachel McKinnon, an expert on athletes’ rights and a professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston, and a world champion track cyclist to boot.

When we shove the concept of athletic ability—strength, for instance—into the same black-and-white binary that we try to put gender into, we’re wrong. There is no stark line separating what men can do athletically and what women can. Some women, in fact, are bigger, faster, and stronger than some men. A large data set analyzed for a 2018 study looked at the body composition and endocrine profiles of 689 elite cisgender athletes in various sports. When it came to physical attributes there was complete overlap between the men and women analyzed, McKinnon pointed out. For instance, the shortest person in the data set was male, not female. The lightest male weighed the same as the lightest female. There were men athletes and women athletes who had testosterone levels that hit the top of the chart and the bottom. Simply put, the range of any physical characteristic within a sex, (like, for instance, the six feet of difference between the shortest man in the world and the tallest man) is far greater than the average difference in height between the average man and the average woman (five inches). And elite athletes tend to live at the far ends of these spectra anyway.


When USA Powerlifting claims that transgender women are going to have an unfair advantage over “biological females,” they are making two very inaccurate assumptions, said McKinnon. “They are saying trans women are the same physiologically as cisgender men, which is not missing a few steps, that’s missing a whole staircase,” she said. Furthermore, “society assumes that all men are stronger than all women, which is absolutely false.”

What actually makes a man or a woman achieve what they can achieve athletically is still pretty much scientifically unquantifiable. The Caster Semenya case and even the IOC’s recommendations lean heavily on testosterone levels, but this is flawed. All the current research on testosterone shows that unlike what you have probably been told your whole life, it’s not just a “male” hormone—everyone has some naturally-occurring testosterone—and levels of naturally occurring testosterone have no correlation with athletic ability. Even the data the IAAF is leaning on to require Semenya alter her hormonal makeup is being vigorously contested in the scientific community as inconclusive at best and faulty at worst.


While more studies are expected on transgender athletes in the near future, at least one small study has shown that transgender women long-distance runners, after going through hormone replacement therapy end up running at about the same level for their gender —that is, they finish about the same spot in the field—after transition as they had before.

USA Powerlifting President Larry Maile told NBC News that the ban on transgender athletes in his federation was in place because powerlifting is “really unique, because we’re a high strength and low technique sport.” But other sports, even strength-based sports, have found ways to include transgender athletes. Weightlifting at the Commonwealth games included a transgender woman for the first time last year. The Crossfit Games began allowing transgender athletes this year after a very public lawsuit. McKinnon herself was the first transgender woman to win a world title in cycling when she won the masters world championship in the match sprint in the women’s 35–44 age category. McKinnon will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t win races automatically because she is a transgender woman—like any other athlete, she wins some, she loses some, and she has had to work extremely hard to get to where she is, especially after undergoing her gender transition.


For an athlete, who depends on and knows their body in a unique way, transitioning can be pretty fraught. The hormone therapies involved for transgender women slow them down, reduce their muscle mass, and make it more difficult to recover from workouts. Training, coaching, and nutrition can counteract some of these effects to a point, but transgender athletes are suddenly working with entirely new equipment. “It’s a massive change that happens really quickly,” McKinnon said. “It’s definitely a disadvantage.”

The very fact that transgender women have not somehow dominated all of women’s sport already throws water all over the USAPL’s claim that women powerlifters must be “protected” from them. “The line that we must protect sport for women from other women is inherently discriminatory,” McKinnon said.


This week, the USA Powerlifting National Governing Board will convene to discuss policy proposals, including one that would allow the inclusion of transgender athletes—the proposal tracks closely to the policies used by the IOC, NCAA, and other major sporting federations. Cooper worked on the proposal along with Breanna Diaz, an LGBTQ advocate in Washington, D.C., who now co-directs the Pull for Pride event with Cooper. Diaz is also a powerlifter, and fully supports Cooper’s ability to compete. “In my experience as an LGBTQ advocate, there is an ongoing feud, where anti-LGBTQ people are just finding ways to keep trans people from living a full authentic life—they don’t view trans women as women and don’t view trans men as men and frankly, that makes me angry.”

For her part, Cooper is not letting USAPL’s ban stop her from powerlifting competitively. She has qualified for the national powerlifting meet sponsored by another federation, the United States Powerlifting Association, which allows transgender athletes to compete in their “untested” division, which is open to all lifters without requiring any drug testing. Even if she doesn’t win every time she competes, Cooper says the naysayers will look at all the people she did beat and tell them they were cheated. But she is unapologetic about her achievement. “Trans eligibility in sport can’t be contingent on placing last.”


Considering trans women athletes as women only if they are weak and small and not competitive just furthers the societal narrative that women are only weak and small and not competitive. It is unclear at this point how USA Powerlifting’s board meeting will play out on Thursday and whether they will continue to try to implement a clearly discriminatory practice in the name of “protecting” women’s sport. But if some women are instead being “protected” against, then what is the point of competition at all?

Maggie Mertens is a writer in Seattle and the managing editor of Bitterroot magazine.