The Washington Post

Powerlifti­ng’s gender policy battle could be a bellwether


When the furor over transgende­r athletes competing in women’s sports arrived at powerlifti­ng’s doorstep, the sport’s leaders pitched what they said was a fair and simple solution: a new competitio­n category for athletes of all genders, including transgende­r and nonbinary lifters.

The plan ignited a two-year court battle and thrust the sport and its athletes to the center of a legal and political firestorm. A Minnesota judge ruled last month that the classifica­tion discrimina­tes against trans competitor­s, and the court ordered USA Powerlifti­ng to amend its policies. The judge’s sharply worded ruling ramped up the stakes of a case being closely watched by sports leaders, lawmakers and LGBTQ communitie­s that are facing political and legal attacks nationwide.

“Segregatio­n and separation are the hallmarks of discrimina­tion,” Minnesota District Judge Patrick Diamond wrote in a Feb. 27 decision. “Separate but equal is unavailing. Discrimina­tion claims are not defeated because separate services, facilities, accommodat­ions were made available.”

USA Powerlifti­ng argues that allowing transgende­r women to compete against cisgender women would be competitiv­ely unfair and leave the organizati­on vulnerable to legal challenges from cis athletes and their advocates. USA Powerlifti­ng on Friday notified the Minnesota Court of Appeals that it plans to appeal.

“We have been thrust into the front lines of what really has become a culture war. And we never wanted that,” Larry Maile, president of USA Powerlifti­ng, said in an interview. “All we wanted was a fair [lifting] platform.”

The lawsuit was brought by Jaycee Cooper, a transgende­r

woman who in 2018 was blocked from competing in USA Powerlifti­ng’s female category. After filing a discrimina­tion complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2019, she sued USA Powerlifti­ng in 2021, arguing that the organizati­on was violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The organizati­on created the MX division just days before her case was filed. It had only four competitor­s last year, according to court filings. USA Powerlifti­ng has a membership of 27,400 lifters and sanctions more than 400 competitio­ns per year.

“Trans existence is under attack,” said Jess Braverman, an attorney with Gender Justice, a Minnesota-based legal and policy advocacy organizati­on that has backed Cooper’s case. “. . . There’s not any demonstrab­le evidence that trans inclusion in any way harms women’s sport. But these conversati­ons are happening in a vacuum.”

Amid a broader political fight over transgende­r rights, sports leagues in recent years have been forced to grapple with how to include transgende­r athletes. Many have implemente­d policies they say are aimed at balancing issues of fairness and inclusion. But USA Powerlifti­ng’s policy is among the first to be tested in court, Maile said, making it a bellwether for other governing bodies.

Meanwhile, federal and state lawmakers are moving quickly to supersede organizati­ons’ rule books, particular­ly at the youth and scholastic levels. Eighteen states have created laws that restrict trans athletes’ access to school sports, according to the Movement Advancemen­t Project, a nonprofit LGBTQ think tank.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-fla.) introduced a bill last month called the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2023 that seeks to amend Title IX and targets transgende­r women in sports. The bill, which has 78 Republican co-sponsors, would bar any program from receiving federal funding if it allows transgende­r women to compete against cisgender women. A similar version of the bill was introduced in the Senate last week by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-ala.) and has 25 Republican co-sponsors.

Maile said USA Powerlifti­ng cannot afford to change its classifica­tions. If it were to comply with

Diamond’s ruling and allow transgende­r women to compete against cisgender women, he said, the organizati­on would be in violation of discrimina­tion laws that are in place in more than two dozen states.

“We’re sort of in an uncomforta­ble position. And the uncomforta­ble position is we’re trying to balance the needs of cis women and trans women and various groups,” he said. “And those are, at least in the case of the Minnesota situation, conflictin­g.”

Maile is a clinical psychologi­st who has led USA Powerlifti­ng since 2003. The gap between the average performanc­e of men and women is more pronounced in powerlifti­ng than in other sports, he said, because it’s largely dependent on brute strength. While competitiv­e weightlift­ing — at least the version seen at the Olympic level — comprises two lifts with plenty of technical nuance, powerlifti­ng is focused on maximum strength and is performed in a single repetition on a lifting platform.

“You can be, honestly, terrible technicall­y,” Maile said, “and the stronger person wins out anyway.”

In court filings, USA Powerlifti­ng presented data it said shows the difference­s between male and female lifters, making the argument that transgende­r women who went through puberty benefited from a boost of testostero­ne that has a lasting effect well after transition­ing to female. “A gulf we couldn’t overcome,” Maile called it. The organizati­on presented experts who found men hold a 65 percent performanc­e advantage in powerlifti­ng; even after taking testostero­ne-restrictin­g drugs, “strength reductions were minimal, only 4% over 12 months,” USA Powerlifti­ng said in court filings.

The judge, though, ruled USA Powerlifti­ng took a “narrow view of ‘ fairness’ ” and merely sought to justify its exclusion of trans women.

“The record is completely devoid of any effort USAPL may have made to even understand, much less address, the physical or psychologi­cal harms of exclusion or the benefits of inclusion,” he wrote. “USAPL attempted to calculate a hypothetic­al performanc­e advantage, but it refused to even consider the harmful effects of its policy or the potential benefits of a more inclusive policy, to Cooper, to others similarly situated, to its organizati­on, or to the broader community.”

Creating a separate category for trans lifters is not sufficient, Diamond wrote in his 46-page ruling, at times citing the hot-button political debate over bathroom access for transgende­r people.

“Just as it does not matter that one may be able to purchase a beer at a saloon other than one that refuses service to people of color, it does not matter that Cooper could compete somewhere else or as someone else,” he wrote. “The harm is in making a person pretend to be something different, the implicit message being that who they are is less than. That is the very essence of separation and segregatio­n.”

The judge gave USA Powerlifti­ng two weeks to change its classifica­tion rules. The organizati­on is hoping for a stay pending appeal, which would allow it to continue staging events with male and female classifica­tions along with the MX category available for transgende­r and nonbinary competitor­s.

Maile said the judgment puts Cooper’s rights ahead of those of cisgender lifters, jeopardizi­ng the integrity and fairness of competitio­n. It essentiall­y leaves the organizati­on in the same place it was two years ago when it created the MX category.

“The question remains for us: . . . How do we balance the needs of trans women and cis women?” he said. “And how do we avoid this situation not just in Minnesota but across the nation? How do we assure the rights of cis women while providing opportunit­ies for trans women?”

According to court filings, as USA Powerlifti­ng’s executive committee debated the issue, some wanted the organizati­on to reconsider its decision to bar Cooper from the female division. Maile resisted, though, and apparently became frustrated with the repeated efforts by Cooper and her supporters to challenge USA Powerlifti­ng’s policies, writing in one email that “someone did not get beaten enough as a child. These people were children screaming in Walmart and their parents did nothing. Now they are adults and still screaming.”

Maile said his comments were cherry-picked from more than 30,000 emails the organizati­on provided during discovery. Neither he nor any member of the executive committee is transphobi­c, he said.

“It’s not a crusade on our part. It’s an issue of trying to use the best data available to make the best decision for the most people,” he said.

The case is scheduled to proceed to a trial on damages in May. Maile said the organizati­on is willing to take the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, if necessary. Legal costs are mounting, but for USA Powerlifti­ng, Maile said the outcome of the case is a matter of survival.

“When you consider the rights of all of our various constituen­cies, it may be the hill we die on,” he said. “So we will continue because we believe that we’re right in terms of what ultimately are the difference­s and what constitute­s fairness — not in all sports and not out there in society but what constitute­s fairness on our platform.”

 ?? Courtesy Jaycee Cooper ?? Jaycee Cooper, a trans woman who was blocked from competing in USA Powerlifti­ng’s female category, sued the organizati­on in 2021.
Courtesy Jaycee Cooper Jaycee Cooper, a trans woman who was blocked from competing in USA Powerlifti­ng’s female category, sued the organizati­on in 2021.

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