A transgender U.S. weightlifter broke women’s world records at a recent powerlifting competition but was stripped of her awards when organizers said they learned she was in the process of transitioning from male to female.
Mary Gregory, 44, won titles in the women’s squat, bench press and deadlift categories at the 100% Raw Competition on April 27 as well as earning the master world record title.
Her victories made her automatically subject to a urine sample for drug testing in front of a federation official, which is when the powerlifting federation says they first learned Gregory was “actually a male in the process of becoming a transgender female.”
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“Our rules, and the basis of separating genders for competition, are based on physiological classification rather than identification,” the Raw Powerlifting Federation said in a statement.
“On the basis of all information presented to the board of directors for this particular case, the conclusion made is that the correct physiological classification is male.”
But before Gregory was stripped of her titles, she posted a photo to Instagram on April 27 celebrating her wins and thanking the powerlifting federation for supporting her as a transgender athlete. In her post, she is open about her identity and said organizers treated her “as just another female lifter.”
While speaking to Global News, Gregory said that organizers knew she was in the process of transitioning and that she was taking estrogen and spironolactone. She said that she had previously competed in the event before transitioning so she presented her new ID and personal information when she registered in the women’s division.
“There was a little bit of awkwardness there initially, but after some discussion, I explained I’m transitioning, I’m on hormones and I said I’ve changed my name,” Gregory said. “Nothing was said, and then the next morning, everybody there seemed even friendlier to me.”
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It wasn’t until her celebratory Instagram post gained widespread attention and backlash did she learn that the federation was taking her titles away. Gregory said she thinks the federation felt pressure to rescind her awards.
“I 100 per cent believe that it was because of the pressure they got,” she said.
“For me, the records weren’t as important at that point as their treatment of me because I felt like they were invalidating who I am. That bothered me more.”
In a statement, the federation said after Gregory’s post went “viral,” board members met to discuss the issue and decided that Gregory’s wins in the female categories were not valid according to their policies.
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“Since the lifter’s gender classification for the purpose of our rules is not consistent with female, no female records will be broken by these lifts,” they said.
In other words, the federation took away Gregory’s titles because while she identifies as female, her sexual anatomy is “male.”
According to Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a professor emerita at the University of Toronto and an Olympic industry expert, stripping Gregory of her titles because she has not had gender confirmation surgery is unusual.
Lenskyj points to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which doesn’t require that transgender athletes have surgery in order to compete so long as they’ve undergone hormonal treatment.
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“Their statement actually said to require surgical anatomical changes is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights.”
Lenskyj said since powerlifting is not an Olympic sport, it is not covered by IOC regulations. In other words, it is up to governing federations to make their own rules.
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“If Mary Gregory had been competing in Olympic-style weightlifting, there would not have been an issue if she fit the other criteria, like low enough testosterone levels, and had been taking appropriate hormones for a year,” Lenskyj said. “She would have been fine.”
But not all professional athletes agree.
British Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies tweeted that a trans woman should not compete with “a woman with female biology” because trans women have “male physiology” and therefore it’s unfair. Other people have argued that trans women have more testosterone, which puts them at an advantage over other female athletes.
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Gregory disagrees with these arguments and says that the hormones she takes have actually hurt her athletic performance as she is no longer able to lift as much weight as she could in the past.
“I’ve made some changes in my technique and the way I perform the lifts that have enabled me to gain some of that strength back, but I’m still a lot weaker than I used to be and I don’t have the same stamina and endurance,” she said. “I actually train harder now than I did before.”
Lenskyj said that the conversation around transgender athletes competing in gendered categories is very controversial, and there is much debate around the role testosterone plays in performance.
She points to the recent court ruling that said Olympic runner Caster Semenya, who reportedly has intersex traits, must lower her testosterone levels in order to compete in certain women’s running events.
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“In the Semenya case that unfolded a week or two ago… they firmly believe in the testosterone advantage and that everything hinges on the testosterone,” Lenskyj said.
“And yet, [RAW] Powerlifting is saying that the advantages of being born male are not eliminated by reduction of testosterone. So you have one international sports federation relying on testosterone almost exclusively to support their position on the intersex athletes like Caster Semenya, and then you have an American national sports governing body saying: ‘No, testosterone is only one piece of the puzzle.'”
The lack of awareness and discriminatory rhetoric around transgender and intersex athletes is something Gregory hopes will change with education.
By speaking out about her experience, Gregory hopes to change people’s perception of transgender athletes and raise awareness.
“I hope, by sharing my story, that it makes it easier for other transgender women to compete and this leads to a more inclusive platform,” she said.
“Hopefully, we can have conversations so the next transgender woman that comes behind me doesn’t have to go through this.”
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press