A little over a year ago, JayCee Cooper of Minneapolis broke her ankle playing roller derby. To stay active, she decided to try powerlifting.
Think of powerlifting as a slightly more accessible version of Olympic weightlifting. Each competitor trains for weeks in advance of a competition to perform in three events: the squat, the bench press, and the dead lift. The goal is, naturally, to lift as much weight as you possibly can.
Cooper loved it. She loved training to beat her personal bests, and the transformative power of her body as she pushed it further and further. It felt good, she says, to know what she’s capable of.
But she hit a huge wall when she tried to join USA Powerlifting, one of the leading powerlifting organizations in the nation. After exchanging emails with the chair of USA Powerlifting’s Therapeutic Use Exemption committee back in December, she was told flat out that she couldn’t compete because she was trans.
“Male-to-female transgenders,” the email said, are not allowed to “compete as females” because it’s supposedly a “direct competitive advantage.”
To Cooper, being excluded – to say nothing of seeing a demeaning term like “transgenders” used so casually -- wasn’t just a punch in the stomach. It was baffling. The International Powerlifting Federation, which includes USA Powerlifting, adopted the International Olympic Committee’s rules regarding trans athletes last fall. Basically, trans women can compete as long as they undergo hormone therapy.
Cooper says she followed the committee’s rules. She’s declared her gender for sporting purposes. She submitted five test results from 2016 to the present day, all of them showing her testosterone levels are well under the guidelines for competition. There’s nothing in USA Powerlifting’s bylaws that says she can’t compete -- except an email from its leadership.
“It kind of takes you aback -- it takes your breath away,” she says.
Two weeks ago, she watched as her friends and peers competed in the State Bench Press Championship in Maplewood, “unimpeded.” They celebrated together. They bonded at the barbell. She was forced to stay in the stands.
Cooper’s not the only one who thinks it’s unfair. Team Green, a team of powerlifters who train at The Movement Minneapolis, issued a statement to USA Powerlifting on Monday “demand[ing]” that trans women be allowed to compete under the same guidelines as its parent organization. USA Powerlifting has two-and-a-half weeks to comply, the statement said, or Team Green’s “participation” in meets would be affected. The Movement owner David Dellanave says he’d prefer to keep open-ended exactly what that will mean.
“We have all sorts of different kinds of people in our gym,” he says. He’d love for each and every one of them to be able to try powerlifting without fear of breaking rules or outing themselves. He says the team agrees -- it was their idea in the first place.
“If any person is willing to put their body through that kind of training, they should be allowed to compete,” Team Green lifter Jennifer Waters says.
So far, nobody on the team has received a response from USA (no one from the organization responded to our interview requests). But Dellanave is hopeful the organization will listen. Team Green is one of powerlifting’s biggest footholds in the state, and it’s a relatively simple policy change: Just follow the guidelines of your parent organization. Let people like Cooper compete.
As for Cooper, she’s not giving up on powerlifting. Last week, she competed in the USPA Minnesota (another powerlifting federation) state championship in Mankato. She won. It’s a victory that she called “bittersweet” in an Instagram post. But she’s determined to prove that trans athletes are not something to be “feared,” but “celebrated fiercely.”
“I belong in this sport, and I’m here to stay,” she says. “Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that.”
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@uspaminnesota State Champion, State Record in Bench, best overall lifter. And still a bittersweet victory. I’m so proud of how far I’ve come with lifting but sad and dismayed about how much I’ve had to fight to make it happen. Thank you @uspapower for giving me the opportunity to compete when others would not. When @usapowerlifting /USAPL, a different federation, made me ineligible to compete and I was informed by the TUEC chair that “Male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport as it is a direct competitive advantage.” I was gutted for numerous reasons. I followed the @olympics committee rules that were adopted into @theipf constitution, the constitution from the international governing body for USAPL. I declared my gender for sporting purposes (There’s a big fat F on my member card, license, passport, etc.) I submitted 5 test results spanning 2016 to present showing that my testosterone levels have been and continue to be significantly under the guidelines. I agreed to further testing. I watched as friends competed in the @usa_powerlifting_mn Bench State Champs unimpeded. I saw them celebrating their triumphs and bonding with their teams all while knowing that I wasn’t competing with them because I am trans, and that is a cause for concern for some folks. According to the USAPL “individuals having gone through male puberty confer an unfair competitive advantage over non-transgender females due to increased bone density and muscle mass from pubertal exposure to testosterone” Again, this is not a policy you can look up, this is what was handed down by USAPL folks via email. Not to make this the point, but seriously, I wouldn’t have won USAPL Bench States, even if I PR-ed. Im not going to be going after @bubblypowerlifter ‘s records anytime soon (serious props to the lifter who can someday, trans or not. I do hope it’s a trans person!) I’m just an athlete grinding in the gym day in/out trying to see what I can do. (cont. in comments)