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Inside the dispute between USA Powerlifting and a Minnesota trans woman athlete

We take an in-depth look at the discrimination claims made by a transgender powerlifter against the leading organization for that sport, and hear from the man who leads USAPL.

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Dr. Larry Maile, left, president of USAPL, and JayCee Cooper, right, transgender woman lifter.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Following publication of our report, we obtained new documents related to USA Powerlifting’s affiliation with the Fair Play For Women group in the United Kingdom, and about the International Powerlifting Federation’s position on issues of transgender inclusion and USAPL’s billing itself as a “drug free” federation. Those have been added to this report, along with more details about JayCee Cooper’s experience in trying to compete as a woman. Also, we’ve added a statement from Dr. Larry Maile with his response to an earlier version of our report that said he personally denied Ms. Cooper’s application to compete in a USAPL event, and edited our story to reflect that she does not believe he alone made that decision.

As Outsports reported on Wednesday, there’s a breakthrough between the two sides in the year-long transgender powerlifting ban saga. USA Powerlifting and lawyers for a trans athlete agreed to sit down with a mediator in hopes of resolving JayCee Cooper’s discrimination complaint, filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in June.

To recap: Cooper wants to participate like every other female competitor but she has been blocked by USA Powerlifting’s “Transgender Participation Policy.”

In the complaint filed by Minnesota-based Gender Justice on behalf of Cooper, her lawyers argue that by excluding trans women athletes from competing as women, the USAPL is violating the state’s 1993 law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dr. Larry Maile, president of USA Powerlifting, told Outsports that although he’s committed to beginning mediation, the outcome is very much unclear.

“We’re willing to talk to them, but I think that the gulf between our positions is still pretty far, so it’s still hard for me to tell what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen.”

Maile told Outsports that it’s now up to the MDHR to schedule the talks. There’s no word on how long it will be before that happens. And as that process drags on, transgender athletes, including Cooper, remain banned from competing.

One day a champion, four days later: disqualified

Part of Cooper’s complaint, she said, is that she was denied the ability to compete as a female in USAPL events, even before the organization created an official policy on trans women.

“In November 2018, I signed up for two meets and submitted for a TUE [Therapeutic Use Exemption, a form that requests a lifter be able to compete despite taking medication because it is medically necessary for the lifter’s health],” said Cooper. The medicine in this case was spironolactone, a testosterone-suppressing medication commonly prescribed to transgender women in the U.S.

USAPL turned her down, she said, “because ‘transgenders’ have a supposed advantage.”

In an email after publication of our report, Dr. Maile said that while he is on the International Powerlifting Federation medical committee, he alone did not make the decision on Ms. Cooper. “I don’t have the authority to decide or to override the opinions of others on the committee who are medical professionals in their own countries. Sometimes I wish I had unlimited authority, but I don’t, either within USAPL or the IPF.” Cooper said she does not believe Maile alone made the decision.

After being denied the TUE, Cooper said her membership was listed as “not eligible to compete” with USAPL. Her only recourse, she said, was to compete “untested” in another federation, USPA, a move that eliminated the opportunity for her to be a part of the World Games, and the Olympic movement. The “untested” category not only limits competitors from achieving the highest echelons of powerlifting, but it places them alongside steroid-using and other athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs.

“I won USPA state,” Cooper told Outsports, “and four days later USAPL published a rule concerning trans lifters.”

Cooper won her state championship on Jan. 26, 2019. USAPL published their policy on trans lifters on Jan. 30, 2019.

Over the past several months, Outsports has conducted hours of interviews with both Maile and Cooper as well as others, to provide our readers with a more clear understanding of the dispute. The interviews with Maile were his first with Outsports, and we offered both him and Cooper and her lawyers opportunities to respond to each other statements for this expanded report examining the root of the dispute and how it has developed.

USAPL denies its policies are “transphobic”

2019 has been marked by a series of moves by USA Powerlifting that have spurred action by transgender advocates, and at the same time, rallied opponents of transgender inclusion to rush to USAPL’s defense. We’ll examine support on both sides, but first, some history:

In January, USAPL sent Cooper a letter forbidding her from competing. In May, USAPL leaders rejected a proposal by Cooper and her Pull for Pride cofounder, Breanna Diaz — who identifies as cis queer Latinx — to rewrite the rules on trans participation. The National Governing Board voted 46-to-4 — with one abstention — against the proposal that would allow trans women powerlifters to compete as women, with women; namely, women who are cisgender — meaning, not transgender.

A group called the Women’s Strength Coalition responded, via Instagram: “From the beginning of the National Governing Board (NGB) meeting, USAPL leadership made clear their gross misunderstanding of transgender people, healthcare, and well-being.”

Maile has repeatedly maintained the USAPL Transgender Participation Policy is not a ban. USAPL declared on its website in June 2019 that “transgender women are allowed to compete in the division reflecting their birth, and transgender men may compete without androgens.” That means trans women lifters can only compete in the male category, and not the female one, and trans men cannot compete at all if their medical transition includes testosterone. All requests to use testosterone are immediately rejected, Maile said, “because of the potential for abuse and the potential that [users] will have a significant advantage.” Therefore, the policy effectively bans trans men even though they — as well as men recovering from testicular cancer — typically use testosterone as part of their medically-approved health care routine.

Following the vote, Maile and USAPL posted a defense of its policy, claiming it “has not ban [sic] transgender athletes. There are rules surrounding requirements for membership as with any organization. Policy is set for the most fundamental of all of the rules, drug testing and secondly fairness in competition.”

“There are many threats to women’s sports, but equality and inclusion are not among them,” said Gender Justice Legal Director Jess Braverman in a statement in June 2019. “Like other female athletes, JayCee is facing policies rooted in bias, fear and unfounded stereotypes. We believe USA Powerlifting’s over-the-top blanket ban on transgender women athletes is clear discrimination under Minnesota law, and we will fight for JayCee’s opportunity to compete.”

USAPL rejects Gender Justice’s accusation that it is discriminating against trans lifters, calling the term “misused.”

“We are a sports organization with rules and policies,” according to a USAPL statement.

And as Maile told Outsports, that position has not changed while USAPL heads into mediation.

Is USAPL working with TERFs?

During that May 2019 meeting in which Cooper’s proposal to revamp the transgender participation policy was rejected, USAPL’s committee chair on Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE), Dr. Kristopher Hunt, presented a report explaining the group’s reasoning and announced, “Larry and I and Priscilla have done a conference call with Fair Play for Women (FPFW) and have ongoing emails with them, and they are 100% behind us on this movement.”

FPFW is an anti-transgender organization based in the U.K., and aligned with trans exclusionary radical feminist groups, also known as TERFs. Hunt’s statement suggested that USAPL had developed its policy with FPFW’s help. However, Maile told Outsports that FPW had no hand in crafting his organization’s final policy. In Hunt’s May 2019 presentation, he mentioned that FPFW suggested that USAPL simply let all trans competitors compete in the male category, a policy which differs from the one USAPL enacted.

While Maile denied the TERF group influenced USAPL’s policy, a 2019 USAPL TUE committee report obtained by Outsports appears to show that it does actively work with them:

USAPL confirming their work with the group FairPlayForWomen
USAPL confirming their work with the group FairPlayForWomen

”Grassroots movement www.fairplayforwomen.com ... has openly supported our decision. There have been several articles written on our behalf that have come out of authors that either contribute to or cite this website. USAPL leadership as well as the TUE committee chair have been in ongoing communication with this movement, and current members of the medical board among several other scientists are collaborating to write a scientific review article to be published on this specific topic.”

Other TERFs have also come out in support of USAPL’s policy. We’ll look at some of the online hate they’ve spewed a little later, as well as hateful attacks on Maile and his organization.

Did USAPL base its decision on a faulty study?

While Dr. Hunt’s May 2019 presentation before USAPL leaders highlighted physiological differences between cis male and cis female powerlifters, both Maile and Cooper agree on something: A recent study didn’t actually reveal whether testosterone gives trans women a competitive advantage over cis female powerlifters.

“A lot of what USAPL has been putting out there... shows us is that on average cis men tend to be stronger than cis women at this current state,” Cooper told Outsports, “and that’s all that shows us.”

Maile agreed with Cooper on this point, but he believes a study comparing cis and female powerlifters would be difficult to achieve:

“You know there’s really not any good data [on trans competitors] and that’s one of the things that I acknowledge in every interview. If you try to look out there and say, ‘Why don’t you do a study of trans power lifters?’ First, we don’t know who they are. Second, they probably are not going to consent and probably for some pretty good reasons. If you’re a persecuted subset of the population anyway, you’re probably not wanting to be in a research study. So, the obvious answer is you run out there and you do a study of the them. But that doesn’t appear to be likely.”

Researchers in the U.K. — who analyzed 8 peer-reviewed research articles and 31 sport policies — concluded in 2016 that Beyond the effects of HRT, ‘there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition.’”

And as Yale bioethicist Katrina Karkazis told Vice News:

“There is no ‘evidence that going through a male-typical puberty will necessarily give transwomen or transfeminine individuals an advantage’ over other women.”

However, a controversial Swedish study published in September has been cited by opponents of transgender inclusion as proof trans women athletes do have an advantage.

It’s also important to note: The researchers of that Swedish study admitted their work was actually not applicable to transgender athletes.

“We acknowledge that this study was conducted with untrained individuals and not transgender athletes. Thus, while this gave us the important opportunity to study the effect of the cross-hormone treatment alone, and as such the study adds important data to the field, it is still uncertain how the findings would translate to transgender athletes undergoing advanced training regimens during the gender-affirming intervention.”

Clearly, more research is needed.

USAPL says trans inclusion isn’t “fair play” and fears a lawsuit

Maile maintains that USAPL’s policies differ from that of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because “each sport is given the latitude to determine how the [IOC] guidelines are applied.”

The Olympic Charter declares “the practice of sports is a human right” that should be accessible by all — which helps explain why the International Olympic Committee’s created guidelines allowing trans female athletes to compete in weightlifting and its other sports as far back as 2003.

USAPL’s policy is at also odds with the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), which allows transgender athletes to compete in accordance with IOC guidelines. IPF president Gaston Parage made that clear in a letter to Minnesota gym owner David Dellanave, obtained by Outsports:

“The IPF has clear rules on this matter. We will follow the IOC guidelines. The IPF Executive Committee has decided on this matter and no one else.”

But in our phone interviews, Maile pointed out that powerlifting, unlike weightlifting, isn’t an Olympic sport. Weightlifting requires far more technique to win — strength alone can make a successful powerlifter — thus, he said, the IOC’s guidelines don’t apply to his sport.

“Weightlifting requires a great deal of technique,” Maile said. “That’s not true in powerlifting. In all honesty, I apologize to my colleagues in powerlifting, you can be really terrible in power lifting technically and still win.”

Furthermore, Maile said he feels the IOC’s guidelines don’t create “fair play” in strength sport. He told Outsports that he worries that allowing trans women to compete with other women could leave USAPL open to a lawsuit.

“We basically make decisions in terms of fair play based on a number of factors and this is only one area. We don’t see [our policy] as discriminatory,” Maile said. “We see it as being necessary to protect the people within a particular class. We’ve had some push by a number of women who were saying basically ‘We are a protected class. If you allow this to occur, you are discriminating against us.’ It’s a difficult balance.”

He cited the Connecticut case in which three cis female high school athletes filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging that having to compete against trans athletes violates federal Title IX rules aimed at equal rights in sports for female athletes.

In response, Cooper told Outsports: “Banning an entire group of people on the fear of [a lawsuit] happening isn’t reason enough to prevent them participating.”

She added that cisgender people’s fears of trans athletes dominating competitions hasn’t happened. There is not one sport where a transgender athlete always wins every contest they enter. Some cis competitors and their supporters, she said, are only comfortable with trans athletes if they lose or come in last, which happens more than is reported, but rarely makes headlines compared to victories by trans athletes.

Those headlines most often appear on sites that advance far right conservative and/or Christian values, and vehemently oppose transgender inclusion.

“This is not about politics and it’s not about religion,” Maile told Outsports. “I’ve been interviewed by a number of conservative outlets — The Patriot Channel ... Fox News, The Daily Caller — and I say the same thing... We are not discussing those things. What we’re going to discuss is what we see as the science and what our role is in powerlifting, what we see as fair play. And if it diverges from that ... then we’re not going to be talking anymore.”

An Olympic-sized problem

USA Powerlifting was founded in 1981 as a “drug-free” organization, a slogan that got the organization in hot water with IPF back in December 2018. IPF issued a cease and desist order, demanding USAPL stop calling itself “drug-free.”

As mentioned earlier, USAPL differs from other powerlifting federations in that others allow trans people to compete in “untested” categories, placing them alongside users of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

But that limits how far trans powerlifter, like Cooper, can advance. The highest level of competition is at the quadrennial World Games, but the International Powerlifting Federation, the governing body that choose athletes to compete there, only chooses the best athletes from “tested” categories. This would be the case, too, if the IOC ever makes powerlifting an official Olympic sport.

As such, competing as untested relegates trans competitors into second-class status, making competition on the world stage completely inaccessible for them.

A trans athlete speaks out

While Cooper has won support from Megan Rapinoe, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and others, even the IOC is rethinking its own trans-inclusive policies. This month, scientific disagreements on acceptable testosterone levels and its bodily effects led the IOC to postpone making changes in testosterone levels for any trans athlete who tries to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo games.

Even if the IOC’s lowers maximum T levels for trans women athletes, as the IAAF has, it’s not likely to ever ban trans athletes from the games.

But the issue remains complex. Joanna Harper, a medical expert and trans athlete who transitioned in her 20s and who has advised the IOC, told Outsports:

“Trans women certainly pose a problem for powerlifting associations. Even after hormone therapy, trans women are, on average taller, bigger and stronger than cis women. Many strength sports, including powerlifting divide competitors into weight categories, and it is not known if trans women are pound for pound stronger than cis women. Hence, it isn’t really clear what policies are most appropriate for trans women competing in a pure strength sport like powerlifting. I don’t think that trans women should be competing in high level women’s sport — especially a sport where strength is so crucial — based on gender identity alone.

“As an overarching principle,” Harper added, “I think that sporting federations should try to craft policies that promote inclusion while maintaining meaningful sport for all competitors.”

While Harper said putting trans women into untested categories is certainly better than not allowing them to compete at all, she told Outsports she’d never condemn an organization that makes some effort to be inclusive.

“It isn’t clear that putting trans women into the untested is the optimal decision,” she said.

Harper also told Outsports she considers it “ludicrous” to put trans men into the untested category despite their testosterone usage because “prior to transition, trans men have a huge strength disadvantage compared to cis men.”

“It is not clear that trans men can make up that deficit even with years of T and rigorous training,” Harper said. “Trans men are certainly not going to be too strong for their cisgender competition in any case.”

Transphobes among supporters of USAPL’s policy

Some of the most outspoken supporters of USAPL have endorsed their trans-exclusive policies with transphobic comments posted on the Outsports Facebook page. Here’s just a sample:

  • “Just because a man calls themselves a woman doesn’t mean they can compete with real women.”
  • “Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina.......simple as that!!!! Men should not be allowed in women’s competitions and woman should not be in the mens. It’s getting out of hand.”
  • “Imagine if Arnold Schwarzenegger just decided to grow his hair out when he was younger and identified as female just to steamroll everyone.”
  • “I suggest [trans women] ... work to create their own spaces where they can compete fairly instead of invading the sex segregated spaces women have already fought so hard for.”

But the pushback against USAPL’s policy has been fiercely personal as well, targeting both the organization and its president.

Fear Her Fight Athletics (FHFA) — a brand whose social media contains numerous messages supporting women’s rights, intersectional feminism, social justice, body positivity, and support of women of color, LGBTQ and disabled athletes — had been a sponsor of some state USAPL events.

In February 2019, USAPL banned demonstrations in support of trans lifters at USAPL events.

When FHFA asked USAPL whether their logo-branded apparel would still be allowed on the USAPL platform considering FHFA’s support of trans powerlifters, USAPL responded via email: “It appears you have answered your own question about your logo with both your mission statement for your company as well as your recent (Instagram) posts regarding [your apparel] being political. Political theme apparel will not be allowed.”

In response, FHFA wrote in a Sept. 27 Instagram post (below):

“How dare athletes support a company that celebrates the mere existence of POC/LGBTQ+ and the work we’re doing... Prime time sponsors one year then not allowed the next.

The fight continues. Things will get louder and the collapse of white supremacy organizations will be here one day... one voice at a time. We’re here on purpose. ✊ ✊ ✊

Outsports reached out to FHFA for elaboration on why the brand called USAPL a white supremacy organization, but we have not received a response as of press time.

USAPL publicly refuted FHFA’s claims in an Oct. 2, 2019 statement, calling them “patently false,” “dangerous” and “minimizing the struggles of those who face actual white supremacy every day.”

While Maile says FHFA’s “white supremacist” claim puzzles him, he added that it’s just one of roughly 10 or more insults and legal threats that have been personally directed against him on social media.

“[People have made] a number of comments like, ‘We’re going to sue you into oblivion’ and ‘We’re going to take your houses and sue you personally,’” Maile told Outsports. “[It’s] irritating, but it’s not as if there’s anything to really do about it.”

He said he didn’t block, delete or otherwise report the comments.

“One of the unfortunate things about being the president of USA Powerlifting,” he added, “is that whenever anybody disagrees, social media provides a venue for them to target you. I personally and the organization don’t have time to chase people down. We have other things to do.”

“Policing Skin”

Among those things USAPL is apparently doing is “policing skin,” according to Cooper.

She said that USAPL officials told female powerlifters that they’d have to scrub temporary tattoos of FHFA’s logo off their arms before they can ascend to the competition platform. If they didn’t, they’d be disqualified, Cooper said.

Cooper wrote in an Oct. 19 Instagram post:

“Look at the lengths that USAPL is going to, all to silence dissent.

They have policed our participation, what we can wear, what we can say, what our skin looks like. When no rules have existed, they have added rules to restrict our existence. When those rules have been challenged, they have tried to intimidate. If this isn’t alarming to you, if you don’t see how this is discrimination, if you don’t see how this is retaliation. You have got to WAKE UP

Those athletes may not have been aware that the updated version of USAPL’s technical rule book (re-released on Oct. 10, 2019) gives officials the right to forbid any logo or emblem that potentially “compromises any commercial interest [of the International Powerlifting Federation]” ... or fails to “meet standards of good taste.”

Supporters of trans lifters show their true colors

Despite USAPL’s Feb. 2019 ban on demonstrations in support of trans lifters at USAPL events, some powerlifters have protested anyway.

At the Sept. 28 USAPL Virginia Novice Open, competitors Kate Aizpuru and Vanessa Knoppke-Wetzel both wore t-shirts touting the message, “Share the Platform,” the motto of a campaign that supports trans-inclusion in strength sports. The two competitors also waved trans pride flags on the awards platform.

According to Aizpuru, USAPL authorities did not try to stop them.

“Of course, sports have ALWAYS been a place for protesting political and social issues,” Aizpuru wrote in an Instagram post (below). “Try googling Peter O’Connor, Althea Gibson, Kathy Switzer, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and of course Colin Kaepernick... just to name a few. “

View this post on Instagram

So i wanted to make a separate post about my & @run_for_funner ‘s flag holding during the medal ceremony at our meet yesterday. This isn’t a comprehensive background but consider it highlights. Last year, @jayceeisalive sought to compete at a @usapowerlifting meet in Minnesota (my home state, by the way). In an email that would turn out to be typical in tone and format of USAPL’s national office (rude, unprofessional, poor grammar, and attitude of smug satisfaction with ignorance), USAPL informed her that “male to female transgenders” wouldn’t be welcome (btw transgender is an adjective, not a noun. This is actually important, because using that word as a noun in that way - “you transgenders can’t come” - is disrespectful and dehumanizing. Try saying it out loud.) Then, USAPL put out a formal statement codifying their discriminatory policy and making it official. You can find this poorly drafted, defensive, ugly statement, stuffed with snide comments and uninformed opinions, on the USAPL website. Now mind you - USAPL is BEHIND other strength sports, including weightlifting, CrossFit, strongman, and the olympics, in having a blanket ban. I won’t get into the details here (google can show you to a lot of resources though!) but trans athletes can and do compete in those sports, though often subject to various restrictions and highly invasive tests. Anyway, this doubling down led to a powerful protest by USAPL athletes at Minnesota State Championships. That made USAPL big mad, and they issued another statement asserting that “a powerlifting meet is not the place to protest political and social issues.” Of course, sports have ALWAYS been a place for protesting political and social issues. Try googling Peter O’Connor, Althea Gibson, Kathy Switzer, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and of course Colin Kaepernick... just to name a few. In the following months, JayCee and her allies (like @thehotrock) attempted to work in good faith with USAPL and persuade them to change their policy and adopt the IOC rules. They provided USAPL leadership with the scientific research and made evidence-based arguments. But the USAPL national leadership remains obstinate (contd below)

A post shared by Kate A (She/Her) (@cantlifteverycat) on

Cooper who took part in the Washington, D.C. Trans Visibility March at the end of September, said her battle with USAPL is only a small part of why she marched:

“The reason that I’m marching ... has a little to do with being a trans athlete, however it’s mostly due to the current political climate and the fact that so much violence has been directed towards black trans women in particular. We as a society, we in this country, need to be doing more and speaking out more about those senseless murders... I’m also marching because of the court cases ... at the Supreme Court on October 8 ... are going to be affecting the lives of all people — it’s not just limited to LGBTQ folks. What happens in those cases will affect every human in this country.”

Cooper was interviewed by popular YouTube personality and lesbian softball league player Melody Maia Monet at the march. Monet bills herself as “The Trans Woman Next Door.”

On Tuesday, hours before the news of the agreement to mediate with USAPL hit Outsports, Cooper posted an apology on Instagram about why she’d been absent lately. She wrote movingly about the pressure she and other trans athletes are under, the daily attacks by opponents of transgender inclusion, and how debilitating having to defend your existence every day, every hour, feels.

“We are forced into activist roles because our bodies are politicized at every moment but then are told to keep politics out of it,” she wrote. “We are scrutinized at every step, for every word, are expected to be constant experts ready to engage with every moment of discourse, we are threatened, we are told to off ourselves, we are stalked, and we experience violence. All while simultaneously being told that we are the bullies, we are the problem, and we are not nice. .

“This is before noon.”

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Sorry for being mostly absent recently. It has been a pretty exhausting and emotional time . Listen, most people really do not understand how difficult it can be to be a TGNCNBI athlete. We are forced into activist roles because our bodies are politicized at every moment but then are told to keep politics out of it. We are scrutinized at every step, for every word, are expected to be constant experts ready to engage with every moment of discourse, we are threatened, we are told to off ourselves, we are stalked, and we experience violence. All while simultaneously being told that we are the bullies, we are the problem, and we are not nice . This is before noon . This is before we step foot in the gym to train. Before we fight our insurance companies for the care we need. Before we submit mandated blood panels. Before the daily dose of transphobia and potential violence. Before we ever step foot on the platform, on the field, onto a bike, on the court, onto a sheet of ice, or into a ring . Let’s make this very very clear. NO ONE would go through all of this on a daily basis because they thought it would give them a supposed advantage in an amateur sport! Absolutely no one. That said, the TGNCNBI athlete community that I know also isn’t going to let the mistreatment and discrimination that we endure be the permanent reality for our community. We are going to encourage involvement and cheer each other on. We are going to protect our youth and each other. We are going to call out bias and bigotry. WE ARE GOING TO LOVE being in our bodies and love playing our sport. We certainly aren’t going anywhere because we absolutely belong everywhere . #sharetheplatform #whyicompete #queerathlete #transathlete #sportisahumanright #transrightsarehumanrights

A post shared by JayCee Cooper (@jayceeisalive) on

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