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JayCee Cooper has been an athlete for most of her life. As a teenager, she made it to the World Junior Curling Championships in 2007. Later, after she came out as transgender, she joined a roller derby team. Now, she’s a powerlifter who trains five days a week in her basement gym.
But despite her experience and training regimen, USA Powerlifiting, the country’s leading organization, doesn’t want her to compete in the women’s category. It says that would be unfair because people assigned male at birth, according to the federation, have a physiological advantage over cis women, even if transfeminine athletes lower their testosterone levels.
USA Powerlifting is a member of the International Powerlifting Federation, which observes International Olympics Committee rules that have allowed trans athletes to compete since 2004. Up until January, USA Powerlifting had no transgender policy of its own. So when Cooper applied late last year to compete in a meet, she thought that if she submitted routine paperwork, including a medical exemption for a transition-related drug she takes, she’d be allowed to compete.
But USA Powerlifting didn’t see it that way.
In an email sent to Cooper in December, a representative from the organization wrote that her request for a medical exemption had been denied and that “male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport, as it is a direct competitive advantage.”
“I followed all the rules leading up to competing, and, like, my own beliefs aside, that should be enough,” Cooper told VICE News. “This is what happens, right? When trans people meet all the rules, they'll just establish more rules to govern our bodies and our participation in society, and in sport.”
Then, in late January, after Cooper started speaking out about not being able to compete, the federation published a transgender policy banning transmasculine athletes who take testosterone, as well as all transfeminine athletes.
VICE News spent time with Cooper in her Minnesota home gym and traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a meet where a lifter protested the transgender policy.
“I followed all the rules leading up to competing."
In its policy, USA Powerlifting claims that transmasculine athletes who take testosterone as part of their transition are essentially doping. Moreover, because some transfeminine powerlifters go through a male-typical puberty, the organization says those athletes will have traits such as “higher bone density,” that “even with reduced levels of testosterone, do not go away.” Therefore, USA Powerlifting believes that transfeminine athletes have an unfair advantage over cis women athletes.
“USA Powerlifting is not a fit for every athlete and for every medical condition or situation,” the federation wrote on its website.
USA Powerlifting’s transgender policy is “sloppy,” said Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Yale University who works on sex testing regulations in sports and will soon publish a book on testosterone. The truth is more complicated. For one thing, there’s no evidence that going through a male-typical puberty will necessarily give transwomen or transfeminine individuals an advantage over cis women, according to Karkazis.
“I actually, as a woman, would find that insulting — as a woman athlete,” she said.
Individuals who suppress testosterone synthesis, like Cooper, may also experience side effects that could negatively affect their sports performance.
“You might lose some muscle mass by lowering your testosterone level,” Karkazis said. “And those drugs also have side effects that can include fatigue, that can include metabolic issues.”
As for testosterone, the hormone does have a physiological impact — it affects lean body tissue, for instance — but when it comes to sports, “you can't assume that the people with the highest levels of testosterone do better,” Karkazis said.
And more fundamentally, testosterone can’t be used to create a clear distinction between male and female athletes — or cis and trans athletes, for that matter. That’s because elite athletes, male and female, sometimes produce the same amount of testosterone.
Since USA Powerlifting’s ban was put in place, a small number of unaffected powerlifters have protested the policy by “timing-out” during their lift attempts. They stand or sit in front of the barbell and intentionally refuse to lift.
“The ban is based on fake science and myth about what it means to be male or female, and I would welcome anybody to compete in a manner consistent with their gender identity,” said Breanna Diaz, a powerlifter and the co-director of Pull for Pride, a nationwide deadlifting fundraiser that supports homeless LGBTQ youth. Diaz “timed-out” in protest of the ban during her squat and bench-press attempts at a district meet in D.C. in April.
She was disqualified before she could move on to the deadlift.
On May 3, USA Powerlifting sent an email to its female members asking them to weigh in on the transgender policy through an online vote. The results of the vote, as well as the transgender policy itself, are set to be discussed at a USA Powerlifting board meeting on Thursday.
The president of USA Powerlifting, Larry Maile, declined an interview with VICE News. “We will discuss this among our members, review all sides of the issue and come to what we feel is the best decision for our organization,” he said in a written statement. “There’s no point in trying to convince a partisan crowd.”
This segment originally aired May 8, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.