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, the country’s leading powerlifting organization, USA Powerlifting, doesn’t want her to compete — because it says that would be unfair to other athletes competing in the women’s category.
USA Powerlifting is a member of the International Powerlifting Federation, which itself observes International Olympics Committee rules that have allowed trans athletes to compete since 2004. So when Cooper applied late last year to compete in an upcoming 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 USAPL didn’t see it that way.
In an email sent to Cooper in December, a USAPL representative wrote that her request to participate in the meet had been denied, adding that “male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport as it is a direct competitive advantage.”
Then, in late January, after JayCee started speaking out about USAPL’s decision, the federation published a transgender policy banning transmasculine athletes who take testosterone, as well as all transfeminine athletes.
“I followed all the rules leading up to competing, and like my own beliefs aside, that should be enough,” Cooper says. “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.”
In its policy, USAPL 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, USAPL says that these athletes will have traits, such as “higher bone density,” that “even with reduced levels of testosterone do not go away.” Therefore, USAPL 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.
USAPL’s transgender policy is “sloppy,” says Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Yale University who works on sex testing regulations in sports and who’ll soon publish a book on testosterone. For instance, there’s no evidence that going through a male-typical puberty will necessarily give transwomen or transfeminine individuals an advantage over a cis woman, Karkazis says. “I actually, as a woman, would find that insulting — as a woman athlete.”
And the truth is far more complicated than USAPL suggests, Karkazis says. Individuals who, like Cooper, suppress testosterone synthesis may experience side effects that could negatively affect their sports performance. “You might lose some muscle mass by lowering your testosterone level,” she says. “And those drugs also have side effects that can include fatigue, that can include metabolic issues.” So assuming that all transwomen have an edge because bones, among other things, don’t change after taking transition-related drugs is an oversimplification.
As for testosterone, the hormone does have an impact on human physiology — including on muscle — but “you can't assume that the people with the highest levels of testosterone do better,” Karkazis says. 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 — because there’s complete overlap across genders between the amount of testosterone that people produce.
Since the USAPL ban was put in place, a small number of powerlifters have protested the ban by “timing-out” during their lift attempts — a term that essentially means that an athlete stands or sits in front of the barbell, and intentionally refuses to lift.