Attorneys for a transgender Minnesota competitive powerlifter who was denied the ability to compete have asked the Ramsey County District Court for summary judgment. They claim that USA Powerlifting’s ban of people who have transitioned from male to female violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibition of discrimination against transgender people on its face.
JayCee Cooper is a competitive powerlifter who is also a transgender woman. She trained to compete for the 2019 USA Powerlifting Minnesota State Bench Press Championship and Minnesota Women’s State Championship. Cooper submitted her application, including a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). A TUE allows individuals taking prohibited substances to compete while following their doctor’s recommendations. Cooper included two letters from her health care providers that confirmed that she has gender dysphoria and was on prescribed medications as a result.
Cooper’s request says, “Women’s sports are stronger when they prioritize gender equity and inclusion.” However, there is a national debate about whether permitting transgender women to compete alongside cisgender women is inclusive or discriminatory.
Jess Braverman, Legal Director at Gender Justice, said, “If the underlying concern was really about the integrity of women’s sports, you’d see legislators acting far more aggressively to fund women’s sports in public schools and to prevent sexual harassment on campuses. Instead, we see state legislators acting aggressively to enact trans bans that result, in some states, in banning a single transgender girl from her school volleyball team.”
The International Olympic Committee, International Powerlifting Federation, the International Weightlifting Federation, the NCAA, and the Minnesota State High School League have policies that allow transgender athletes to compete. USA Powerlifting (USAPL) is an outlier. In December 2018, USAPL replied to Cooper, letting her know that she would be unable to compete because she is transgender. Subsequently, USAPL revoked her competition card, which prevents Cooper from competing in future USAPL events.
Gender Justice, along with co-counsel at Nichols Kaster, filed a charge of discrimination on behalf of Cooper with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2019. In 2020, USAPL announced that they would create a distinct division for competition for transgender athletes. This does not, according to Cooper’s complaint, provide a path towards competition.
Cooper and the USAPL attempted mediation and negotiations; however, those failed. On Jan. 12, 2021, Gender Justice and Kaster filed a complaint in Ramsey County District Court.
When USAPL denied Cooper entry into the competition, it did not have a formal policy that expressly prohibited transgender women from competing. In January 2019, it developed a formal policy that bans transgender women from USAPL competitions.
At the time of publication, USAPL did not have comment. However, USAPL has a “Transgender Participation Policy,” noting that “not all powerlifters are eligible to compete in USA Powerlifting.” It prohibits the use of testosterone or other androgens, citing the “anabolic nature” of the compounds as being the grounds for their prohibition. This excludes many people transitioning from female to male. The USAPL also prohibits male to female competitors, asserting that “the impact of maturation in the presence naturally occurring androgens as the level necessary for male development, significant advantages are had, including but not limited to increased body and muscle mass, bone density, bone structure, and connective tissue.” It maintains that those physical advantages are not eliminated by the reduction of serum androgens, giving male to female transitioning competitors a potential advantage.
“There is no science to support the notion that categorically excluding transgender women is necessary to achieve fairness in women’s sports,” Braverman said. “And, of course, whenever the issue of fairness comes up you have to ask ‘fair to whom?’ There is nothing fair about categorically excluding an entire category of women from women’s sports based on who they are.”
USA Powerlifting is adamant that it is not transphobic in having the policies that it has, calling the term discrimination a mere way to catch the public’s attention. “No, you are not discriminated against because you are a 40-yer-old college student that is not allowed to compete at Collegiate Nationals. No, we are not discriminating against your 7-year-old daughters by not letting her compete. It is simply the rules of this sport that all must follow if we are to be [a] fair playing field,” USAPL writes.
Gender Justice has moved for summary judgment, “USAPL’s policy singles out trans athletes purely on the basis of their gender identity, which is exactly the type of discrimination that is against the law under the Minnesota Human Rights Act,” said Christy Hall, senior staff attorney at Gender Justice.
“We are walking down a dangerous road when we allow junk science and fear mongering to override our civil rights,” Braverman said. “Hopefully that won’t happen here and Ms. Cooper will prevail. Everyone should be concerned about the outcome of this case.”