At least in many parts of the world, we nowadays fortunately live under circumstances where each individual can live freely the way they want. Due to this fact, for persons who feel that they live in the wrong body the possibilities to determine their sexual identity have become more and more flexible. An ever-growing transgender movement is one of the results of this social development. The controversies surrounding this movement now have fully arrived at the iron sports scene as such cases like that of Janae Kroc, JayCee Cooper or, most recently, Mary Gregory show. A born man but a woman in her heart and mind, Gregory competed as female lifter at a 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation’s event. Never had she expected the kind of backlash she received afterwards…
April 27, 2019 may have become another historically significant date for the discussion about gender (in)equality and fairness in strength sports – and a powerlifting athlete named Mary Gregory was at the center of attention when the controversy caused another uproar in the realm of iron! It was the day Mary triumphed impressively at an event of the 100 % Raw Powerlifting Federation. Congratulated by other competitors, officials and referees, she felt enthusiastic and proud of her performance: “What a day, 9 for 9!” she posted on Instagram. “Masters world squat record, open world bench record, masters world dl record, and masters world total record! Still processing …”
But what could have been the best day of her lifting career at that point, turned out to be one of the most painful reminders of the dilemma she’s been finding herself in for quite some time and with which she’s been struggling with tirelessly: Being a born male that just doesn’t feel like one, she took hormones to lower her testosterone, she legally changed her name and, of course, she grappled – and still is grappling – with the misunderstandings and negative reactions of her social environment .
It therefore came as a big let-down for Mary when only a few days after her phenomenal success the 100 % Raw Powerlifting Federation stripped her of her titles and records. The federation’s president Paul Bossi issued a statement on May 1 that the organization would not have been informed about Mary Gregory being a transgender athlete and a biological male beforehand. The federation would have been confronted with this info unexpectedly and would have had to react accordingly to guarantee certain athletic fairness standards.
Though Gregory who had her coming out in 2016 insisted on her honest intentions and asserted that she’d have never tried to mislead anybody, the fact that she had registered as a female lifter and had only been identified as transgender during the post-match drug test was reason enough for the 100 % Raw Powerlifting Federation to have her disqualified: “We could’ve rectified a lot of this prior had we known,” Bossi said. “In a way, we felt like we were duped.”
Other female sports athletes like Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, double Olympic mid-distance runner Kelly Holmes or tennis icon Martina Navratilova criticized Mary Gregory for competing in the female class since her male physiology would have provided her with an unfair advantage over her biologically female competitors: “It’s a bloody joke and all getting ready for biological women to boycott certain events. Have a trans category if need be but even better a trans games. Otherwise, I’m starting to worry about the backlash and abuse that the trans community will get from spectators. It will happen!” as an infuriated Kelly Holmes stated.
Just as was the case with transgender powerlifter JayCee Cooper who had been excluded from competition by the USAPL earlier, this further incident raises the question of how sports organizations should deal with the tension between the public demand for athletic fairness and for inclusion at the same time. While the honorable IOC decided in 2016 that transgender athletes can compete against women, provided they do not exceed a certain testosterone level, its subsidiary organizations USAPL and 100 % Raw Powerlifting Federation made use of their right to follow their own guidelines.
Surely, a case can be made for the decision to exclude male-to-female trans-athletes from the female class since bone structure and muscle density differ significantly between males and females once an individual has gone through puberty. Notwithstanding the changeable hormone levels, this constitutes an unfair advantage over biologically female athletes. But the fact that Mary Gregory or JayCee Cooper had to suffer a severe backlash definitely could have been avoided, had the respective federations showed more foreseeing awareness for these kinds of gender issues and implemented a trans category beforehand.