Equal-rights v. equal-fights: Trans athletes in competitive sports put gender equality to the real test

Equal-rights v. equal-fights: Trans athletes in competitive sports put gender equality to the real test

Women's sports are going through a strange transition

CultureDecember 04, 2019 By Will Brendza

When Mary Gregory signed up to enter the 100-Percent RAW Powerlifting Masters National Championships meet in Virginia she didn’t even hesitate to mark her gender as “female.”

Even though she had competed with this federation multiple times in the past, in different weight classes and as a male; even though she had only begun her transition from male to female less than a year prior, Gregory, 44, says that it didn’t even cross her mind to mark it any other way.

“I mean, that’s my gender,” Gregory told the Washinton Post. “I didn’t even think about it.”

It was a move that would spark a national conversation about trans athletes in competition. Sports like power weight-lifting are exactly where the rubber meets the road when it comes to gender equality and gender identity. Because no matter how someone might identify themselves, no matter how much support and love and respect they get from their community, the physical differences between men and women are a matter of biology — not perception or acceptance.

Which Gregory was about to unintentionally prove.

Mary Gregory. Image courtesy of Facebook.

On that April day, for the first time in her life, Mary Gregory (formerly Marcus Gregory) walked into a powerlifting meet to compete as a woman. And she crushed it. Not only did Gregory feel a surprising level of support and welcome from her competitors, but she also smashed nine consecutive female lifting world records.

Yes, nine of them in one day. Once Gregory got into her groove, she was almost unstoppable: she pushed one record after the next, setting a new and much higher bar for what women are apparently physically capable of. It was shaping up to be a life-changing day, one that Gregory hoped would set a precedent for trans-weightlifters everywhere.

Which it would. Just not quite the precedent that she’d had in mind.

Mid-meet, just after Gregory had shattered several women’s bench press records, she was asked to do a urine test by one of the federation’s female official’s — even though Gregory had already done one. This is standard practice according to Paul Bossi, the president of 100-Percent RAW. Any time a competitor breaks a record, they have to be drug tested.

“Those are our rules,” Bossi says. They’re in place for a very specific reason: to prevent cheating, to make sure that their records are broken legitimately.

So, Gregory followed the female official to the bathroom. But just before Gregory dropped trou, she turned to the RAW official and said, “Well, this is kind of embarrassing for me, because I don’t have the correct anatomy.”

Then she peeled off her pants, sat down and filled the cup.

Up until this point, Bossi had been reserved about questioning Gregory’s gender. He says he was worried that by asking he would be stepping out of line, and might unnecessarily insult Gregory. What if she actually was a biological woman?

But when Gregory’s pants came down that reservation went out the window.

“All of a sudden the female judge sees a penis,” Bossi recalls. “It's like, whoa, whoa, whoa. We do have a problem here.”

But they didn’t know what do about it. Bossi and his team at 100% RAW needed a little while to talk this over and plan a course of action.

Gregory however, was overcome with joy, and didn’t hesitate for a second to publicize her win. Right after the meet she posted a photo of herself holding a trophy to Instagram. The post read:

“What a day, 9 for 9! Masters world squat record, open world bench record, masters world dl record, and masters world total record! Still processing, full meet recap to come a bit later but I do want to thank a few people!

Gregory might as well have dropped a bomb when she posted that — the internet exploded in response.

“All of a sudden, the hate mail started coming in,” says Bossi. People started bombarding Bossi with messages, emails and phone calls, threatening to never participate in a RAW event again; calling Gregory’s records unfair to biologically born women; calling Bossi a scumbag; asking: how could he have let this happen?

And Gregory wasn’t safe from criticism either. She likewise started getting some extremely nasty messages from some extremely hateful people.

Days later, Mary Gregory’s records were all revoked, stripped from her like a spandex singlet. We reached out to Mary Gregory multiple times to get her side of the story but never received a response.

All of this could have been avoided, Bossi says, had Gregory just indicated prior to the event that she was a transgender lifter. It wouldn’t have become such an infamous and widely publicized issue if she had. But she didn’t — and Bossi says that he felt duped.

Even though, prior to the event, Gregory says she double checked the rules for 100% RAW and found no regulations against transgender competitors; no rules that said a transgender athlete had to disclose anything about their gender history.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Gregory said that it felt like Bossi and the others at RAW were invalidating her gender and her identity by stripping her of the records. She remains adamant that since she started her transition in 2017, she should be allowed to compete with and alongside female athletes — not males.
 

A strange line

Cases like Gregory’s are starting to pop up in competitive sports across the nation. And they’re conundrums. Not just because gender has become such a hot-button topic, either, but because this issue dances on the strange line between gender equality and fairness in physical competition.

Of course, everyone should agree that when it comes to rights, respect, pay, the ability to own things and to be independent, women and men should be indistinguishably equal. That’s unquestionable. But speaking physically? Society has long kept physical competition between men and women separate. And for a very real and simple reason: we have different bodies, with different physical capabilities. 

So, in this era of blind-total-mass-equality, how does society reconcile that natural, bodily inequality between genders?

It’s isn’t easy — which is something that schools, clubs and federations like 100% RAW are learning firsthand:

In Connecticut, two high-school transgender athletes, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, who were both born male, competed as females in the 100-meter-race at the State Open Finals. They came in first and second place, respectively. Every other female track and field runner finished behind them.

In the UFC, Fallon Fox, a transgender woman and (now retired) fighter was bulldozing her competition. She won her second victory in professional MMA in just 39 seconds, when, after unaffectedly taking a slurry of body blows, Fox delivered one, powerful knee strike to her opponent’s face and knocked her out cold.

 

During another fight, Fox left her competitor Tamikka Brents with a serious concussion, an orbital bone fracture and seven staples in her head, just after the first round.

Of her experience fighting Fox, Brents was quoted saying, “I've fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it's because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.”

These examples paint a pretty bleak picture for biologically born female athletes who have dreams of gold medals, sponsorships and college scholarships. It’s also demoralizing for those female athletes out there who have spent hundreds, even thousands of hours training for their chance to compete against their peers, to prove their prowess and abilities in a fair competition — only to be crushed by a woman in a man’s body.

But it’s not a man’s body! some will argue. They’ll claim that, when a man transitions to a female, they undergo hormone therapies which reduce their testosterone, reducing their muscle mass and leveling the playing field between biologically born female athletes and transgender female athletes. Therefore, a transgender woman’s body is totally equal to a biological woman’s and visa-versa.

However, according to a study published in the scientific journal, Medical Ethics, that is not the case. The study concludes that biological males (no matter how they identify) have an “intolerable” and overwhelming advantage over female competitors — even after making a full transition. The males examined in the study “did not lose any significant muscle mass (or power)” after their testosterone levels were suppressed. And they could even rebuild what muscle/power was lost, with regular training.

Which is to say, the physical playing field is never truly leveled just because someone switched their gender. Their skeletal frame and muscle mass remain pretty much exactly the same. Which is likely why trans-gender women are starting to sweep athletic competitions, smashing their opponents, breaking women’s records like twigs.

Paul Bossi with 100% RAW explained it simply: He said they’d crunched the numbers after Mary Gregory broke those nine records, and it painted a pretty clear picture of how her transition affected her place among powerlifters.

“Marcus Gregory as a male lifter was in the 60th percentile of strongest lifters. So a little bit over average,” Bossi says. “As a female, she moved up to the 96th or 97th percentile. That's just not right. That doesn't just happen.”

And he’s right. It’s not an insignificant leap, and it explains why Mary Gregory was able to set the bar so high for all her female peers. Yes, she practiced and worked her ass off; yes she lifts five-days a week for 90 minutes before sunrise; but she also has the bodily frame and build of a male lifter. And nothing is going to change that.
 

Divisive Divisions

In response to the public outrage and the strange spot that Bossi had been put in when Mary Gregory’s story hit the national spotlight, he considered starting a trans-division for power weightlifters. He didn’t want to exclude, dismiss or shrug off trans-athletes by boxing them out of both gender divisions. So, in an interview with the Washington Post, Bossi suggested that he would be initiating a trans-lifting division for Gregory and others like her very soon.

But Gregory rebuffed that idea as soon as she heard it.

“I think it’s discrimination,” she said, of Bossi’s proposal. “It’s not that different than having a category for tall people or for African Americans or for Hispanics.”

Then again, it isn’t so different from making a specific division just for women, and one just for men, either. Nor, for that matter, is it so different from breaking divisions up by weight, or separating the regular Olympics from the Special Olympics. When it comes to competitive sports there has always been divisions for different genders, sizes and types of people. Why, then, would a trans division be discriminatory?

Bossi didn’t have an answer for that question, but when he heard Gregory had dismissed his compromise so flippantly, he countered, “You know what? Screw you. Now, you're not getting a transgender division … You're born a male, you lift a male. You're born a female, you lift a female. That's it. That's our rules.”

And, honestly, that might be the simplest solution moving forward. If athletes like Gregory see a trans division as a form of unfair segregation, and the world see’s trans athletes competing in regular gender divisions as unethical, perhaps the best compromise is no compromise at all. Just do things the way they’ve always been done — at least until there’s a better system.
 

Good sport

People find sports entertaining for a lot of reasons: It’s inspiring to see what the male and/or female form is capable of when it’s been highly trained and conditioned; it’s exciting to see two equally skilled and capable athletes competing against one other, striving for the win.

But by allowing trans women to compete against biological women (especially in contact sports) we are opening the door and inviting trouble in. It’s not good sport — it’s unethical and it can even be dangerous. And for the women who have spent their lives training to be the best female competitor in their sport, this trans-trend does not bode well. 

According to Bossi, “it could destroy women’s sports,” if it gets out of hand.

Which is all the more reason to figure out how transgender athletes fit into competitive sports. Society is evolving and our sports need to evolve with it. It’s a beautiful and exciting thing that our culture has become so accepting of people who want to express their inner identity, and live out their truest-to-self life. Discrimination against transgender individuals is sick and ignorant.

But so is the idea that biological women now have to compete with men who identify themselves as a female.