Barred From Competing, This Trans Athlete Exposes Rift in Powerlifting Regulations

JayCee Cooper complied with all IOC standards on hormone replacement therapy, but that's not enough for USA Powerlifting.

For JayCee Cooper, there is nothing like putting all your pain into a barbell. She pushes past the trauma as she drives it toward the sky.

“Powerlifting became a really important thing to me,” she says. “It was the first time I was celebrating my body through what it could and what it was doing.”

Not everyone is celebrating Cooper’s strength in sports, however. Chief among her opponents is USA Powerlifting, the country’s national governing federation for powerlifting. Last week, Cooper filed a complaint against the organization with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights after being barred from competing as a transgender woman.

Cooper, 32, alleges that even though she met the International Olympic Committee (IOC) standards for transgender women on hormone replacement therapy, USA Powerlifting revoked her competition status. Now the Minneapolis resident has filed a discrimination complaint against the national organization in her home state.

“Having someone take away something that has given you so much is incredibly painful,” she tells NewNowNext. “It feels very targeted.”

Gender Justice
JayCee Cooper.

Minnesota has had gender identity protections on the books since 1993, noted Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero in a statement to NewNowNext. The Department declined to comment on the complaint, but Lucero said “the agency is committed to ensuring the civil rights of all Minnesotans, including transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, are protected.”

Cooper has spent almost her whole life competing in sports. Before medically transitioning, she played soccer, wrestled, ran track and field, played baseball, skated in roller hockey, and competed in curling. She also rowed in Minneapolis Rowing Club while at McNally Smith College of Music and after graduation.

“Competing in sports has been one of the only consistencies in my life, and it’s such an important piece of my identity,” she says.

In 2014, as she started her medical transition, she halted athletic competitions, as men’s sports no longer felt like a safe space. But in 2017, an ad for powerlifting caught her eye. The following November, she decided to sign up and bought a membership with USA Powerlifting.

Founded in 1981 as the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association, USA Powerlifting keeps strict testing rules for its athletes, President Lawrence Maile tells NewNowNext.

“In essence, they’re not allowed for anyone, not males with medical conditions, not women who have essentially medical conditions related to female physiology that might benefit from that treatment,” says Maile.

Even men taking testosterone to treat testicular cancer can’t compete with the organization.

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Still, Cooper expected USA Powerlifting to defer to rules set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when it came to transgender athletes. In 2016, IOC updated its policy to allow transgender women with testosterone levels below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to their first competition to compete. Transgender men could compete in men’s categories without any restrictions.

As part of the organization’s USA Powerlifting’s policies, Cooper disclosed in November 2018 that she was taking an androgen suppressant for gender dysphoria and had two physicians attest that she was eligible to compete per IOC guidelines.

The organization responded “male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females,” her complaint alleges.

The organization reiterated its stance in a policy released shortly after. That policy states that transgender men taking testosterone can’t compete at all and that transgender women must compete in men’s categories.

For Cooper, the rule is not only a denial of who she is as gender nonconforming trans woman, but threatens the affirmation she has found under the barbell, the feeling of autonomy she has gained over her body as a trans person re-entering sports.

“I was hoping to bring something that’s so helpful for me into competition, so my identity as an athlete would feel more whole,” she says.

Her attorney and Gender Justice Legal Director Jess Braverman says that USA Powerlifting has fallen out of step with other sports associations on trans inclusion.

“Blanket exclusions are counterproductive,” says Braverman. “The belief that transgender women should just be barred from sports altogether is rejected by many sports organizations, including those at the elite levels.”

Maile says the organization is not trying to ban transgender athletes from competing. He says USA Powerlifting commissioned a study of 16,000 powerlifting competing on the world stage and found that men had a competitive advantage over women of between 43-63%.

It’s unclear, however, if any of those athletes studied were transgender, he concedes.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Maile said the organization compared its findings with the same study used by the IOC, the famous Joanna Harper study, which looked at eight transgender runners and found that they were 10-12% slower after transition.

“Is a 10-12% reduction sufficient to level the playing field for cisgender women?’” asks Maile. “Given that there’s a 40-60% difference at every level of competition between males and females, it doesn’t seem sufficient. It is a significant increase in competitiveness through transition”

Maile says his organization encourages transgender athletes to compete elsewhere. The nation’s other major powerlifting organization, United States Powerlifting Association (USPA), has no policy regarding transgender participation, says Executive Vice President Mike Tronske (the organization does provide guidelines trans athletes are expected to follow, however).

“We don’t have a problem, and we’re not going to create a problem to try to prevent a problem that we don’t have,” Tronske tells NewNowNext. “Everybody is a human being just looking for happiness in their life. And regardless of what your background is, we all share a common interest in this sport. We want to just make it open to everybody.

In USPA, athletes can compete in both “tested” an “untested” divisions. In many cases, transgender people can be barred from the “tested” divisions, which weed out competitors taking performance-enhancing drugs. Cooper continues to compete in USPA’s untested division, she says. But that’s still not inclusion, she adds.

“In my case, that means I could be performing against someone who is taking performance-enhancing drugs,” she says.

Also, USA Powerlifting is the only route to the World Games, Cooper notes. While she can still compete with other federations, her access to international competition is cut off.

Gender Justice

All of this discussion over whether a trans person might win a competition misses the point, says Cooper. USA Powerlifting is talking about transgender women like they’re men, she argues. She wants trans athletes to be able to compete like anyone else.

“Their study and everything else aside, sports exist in a world where human rights exist,” she says. “And that’s a fundamental framework in which they’re not operating in.”

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.
@shoeleatherkate