By: JayCee Cooper, Co-Director for Pull for Pride, four-time Minnesota state powerlifting record holder, US Powerlifting Association national bench press medalist, former junior national curling champion, and Athlete Ally Ambassador
Sport is a place where all should feel safe to participate authentically without fear of scrutiny, violence, or discrimination. Where we can say, “YES, I am trans. Yes, I am queer. Yes, I am gender nonconforming. Yes, I am intersex. Yes, I am nonbinary. Yes, I don’t have it all figured out but please be patient with me as I shed the things I was conditioned to believe.” There shouldn’t be anything stopping us from saying YES, I am an athlete, too.
Fifteen years ago, I qualified and competed in my first junior national curling championship. I eventually won juniors and went to the world championships. Upon arriving at that event, a mentor told me something I’ll never forget: “Of everything that has happened and will be, no one can take this away from you.” These experiences, and the pursuit of my dreams, shaped who I would become. They also helped me figure out who I wasn’t.
Trans life and gender nonconformity have existed for more than a millennium in many cultures, a reality uninhibited by rigidity and shame and instead full of life, love, creativity, and color. When I walked away from a grayscale existence as an adult, it was the most liberating and honest act of love I could have given myself. In coming out, I started to see many parts of my life with immense clarity, and not just about how I experience gender. I realized why being an athlete was an important part of my identity in the first place. It was not because sport provided an escape, a mask, or an opportunity to win. It was simply because I loved it! I loved moving MY body, the focus and drive sport gave me, and sharing that with community. As a badass queer trans woman I can (and should) still be able to experience these things! You should be able to, as well.
Strength training has always been a part of my life as a way to connect with my brother, who also lifts, and in a cross-training capacity. As a sport, powerlifting made me feel something unprecedented: empowered on MY terms. The feeling of using my body and strength to channel negative energy and express it in a positive and authentic way is magical and therapeutic.
After competing in unsanctioned charity events, friends started to encourage me to compete with them in USA Powerlifting (USAPL), the country’s national governing body (NGB) in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).
My coach and I read through all of the rules, saw that the International Olympic Committee Consensus concerning trans athletes was adopted, and that there were no other eligibility rules mentioning trans athletes. After registering for two state meets and submitting the necessary paperwork showing that I had more than met the requirements, I was told I couldn’t compete. The reason that I was given was that there was precedent to deny trans eligibility and that “Male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport as it is a direct competitive advantage.” My membership was subsequently switched from open/competing to non-competing.
It hurt deeply, but it was then that I realized that my mentor was speaking to the future me, too: “Of everything that has happened and will be, no one can take this away from you.” It was hardly about reaching the world championship and rather had everything to do with the journey, the impact on identity, and a person’s right to realize their dreams. Yes, I am trans. Yes, I am a powerlifter, too. No one can take that away from me.
With options limited to organizations that are not associated with the World Games or Olympic movement, I still pursued competing. After participating and setting a record in a Minnesota state meet in January 2019, I decided to speak out publicly about what had happened.
Four days later, USAPL released their transgender policy, largely viewed as a ban. The decision to restrict trans athletes from competition was made despite international standard in sport (including decisions made by the executive committee of the IPF itself) and similar organizations such as the Canadian Powerlifting Union (another IPF NGB), USA Weightlifting, Strongman Corporation, CrossFit, and many other sports providing pathways for trans people to compete.
Protests have taken place, petitions signed, letters of support released, a rule change was submitted with the NGB (and was voted down), plenty of press, and a charge of discrimination was filed against USAPL with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights on my behalf. The responses remain that USA Powerlifting will continue to “defend [their] policies and practices vigorously.”
As this struggle approaches one year, I want to give thanks to the collective teamwork of supporters and organizations like Athlete Ally, Gender Justice, Women’s Strength Coalition, Pull for Pride, and Fear Her Fight Athletics. Because of you, we are stronger and more determined than ever. I’m proud to be a part of that movement and to now be an Athlete Ally Ambassador.
Sport is a human right, and no one can take that away from you. It’s time to share the platform.
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