Laurel Hubbard was noticeably absent when New Zealand’s Olympic weightlifting team gathered for a celebratory photo shoot last month.
The publicity-shy weightlifter is set to become the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics, sparking a heated debate about gender, sexism, and sport.
The 43-year-selection, old’s according to her supporters, is a long-awaited milestone that exemplifies the Olympic spirit of inclusion and could inspire other transgender athletes who are underrepresented in sport at all levels.
Hubbard’s critics, including Piers Morgan, a conservative British shock jock, argue that being a transgender woman, or a woman who was assigned male at birth, gives her an unfair physical advantage. Hubbard’s inclusion was even dubbed “a bad joke” by one of her competitors, who claimed it was unfair to cisgender women, whose gender identity matched their sex assigned at birth.
Hubbard has remained silent about the uproar, except to say that she’s been “humbled by the kindness and support” she’s received from her fellow countrymen in a brief statement.
Advocates for greater diversity in sport say Hubbard’s selection proves transgender women aren’t a threat to women’s sports, but the backlash she’s received suggests the fight for inclusion isn’t over.
When Kristen Worley attempted to represent Canada in track cycling at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, she became the first athlete to undergo an Olympic gender verification process.
She’s been fighting ever since to ensure that no one else has to go through the same “humiliating” ordeal.
Worley, an XY female, had a physical examination in 2005 in a room with four men: two sports administrators, one lawyer, and one emergency doctor, according to Worley’s book “Women Enough.” An endocrinologist had previously asked about her sexuality during a physical examination.
“They viewed me as a threat to sport,” she wrote. “At best, I was trying to cheat; at worse, I was a freak. They felt utterly entitled to ask me embarrassing, intimate questions about the details of my surgeries, and talk openly about my body in front as me, as if I wasn’t there.”
The Stockholm consensus allowed transgender women and men to compete in the Olympics if they underwent “surgical anatomical changes” (such as having their testes or ovaries removed), obtained legal recognition of their assigned sex, and underwent hormone therapy for a long enough period to “minimize gender-related advantages.”
But, according to Worley, those rules aren’t based on science.
Worley’s body produced almost no testosterone after her testes were removed. She requested an exception to allow her to take testosterone in order to keep her body healthy.
It took three years for her to be granted permission to take testosterone, and even then, it was still below the level she believed her body required to be healthy.
Although testosterone is most commonly associated with men, it can also be found in women. Although testosterone supplements for women can help with energy levels, Amy K. Weimer, the medical director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Gender Health Program, said it’s unclear how important testosterone is for women. Although the majority of transgender women do not take testosterone supplements after transitioning, there are some instances where it is advised, according to her. “This area is very poorly researched and every person’s experience is different,” she said.
Worley stopped cycling because he was scared and traumatized by the years-long process. She claims she has lost her job, Olympic opportunities, health, and well-being. She couldn’t ride a bike again for another five years.
“When you’re violated in that way … you never forget it. You just learn how to manage it,” she told CNN in a Zoom interview. The way her gender identity was publicly discussed destroyed her: “It made me feel like I was less than half a human being.”
Worley filed a complaint with Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal in 2015, alleging that the IOC’s enforcement of the 2003 Olympic policy was a violation of human rights.
The case was eventually settled in 2017, with both the Ontario Cycling Association and Cycling Canada agreeing to revise their policies.
At the same time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was reviewing its own policies, and in 2015, it agreed on new guidelines that eliminated surgical requirements. Transgender women were allowed to compete in the female category if they had declared their gender identity as female for at least four years and could show their testosterone level was less than 10 nanomoles per liter for at least a year.
Athletes who switched from female to male status were allowed to compete in the male division without restriction.