Transgender troubles

Laurel Hubbard, the transgender weightlifter who will represent New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games, appears to be determined to compete yet thoughtful about the concerns expressed by her detractors. She asks them to ‘look at the bigger picture,’ yet seems unsure if the current laws on transgender participation will remain or evolve, perhaps more in line with the perceptions of athletes who look upon her participation as cheating.

However, since her testosterone levels have been given the okay for female competition, she has science on her side. She also has the backing of the weightlifting and international Olympic authorities.

According to the Commonwealth Games Federation there is ‘no moral, ethical or legal basis to prevent transgender athletes from pursuing their sporting ambitions.’ But while perception is not everything, it is important and the verdict imposed by science ignores valid emotional responses.

The perception of many people, athletes and non athletes, is that having lived as a man for 35 of her 39 years (and competed as a man for some of that time) Hubbard’s sexual transformation is not sufficient reason to allow her to compete as a woman.

It is understandable for angry female athletes to ask of their transgender competitors: Has they got ovaries? Have they ever had a period? And perhaps, unscientifically, appeal to sportsmanship.

The transgender subject is laden with controversy not confined to sports. For instance Germain Greer is unwilling to give trans-people political credibility because, having grown-up male, they have no notion of sexual inequality. In sporting terms that means fairness, which is the essence of athletic competition.

It is interesting to consider how the Olympic authorities would react if Bruce Jenner was an athlete today. Bruce, now Caitlyn, was an Olympic champion decathlete. Probably the only thing he desired more than an Olympic gold medal was to have the body of a woman.

It is only in recent years that he had the operation to become a woman but say he’d won a medal at the last Olympics and had since become a transgender female, would he be allowed to compete as a women?

She lived as a man for 35 years and her participation in women’s weightlifting has polarised opinion, while drawing criticism from several of her rivals.

Hubbard has been named in New Zealand’s team for the Commonwealth Games. In a letter Keelan wrote which has been obtained by Australia’s Daily Telegraph, he again protested against the Kiwi’s right to compete at international weightlifting events.

“Ultimately, it is our strong view that weightlifting has always been a gender-specific sport, male and female, not a competition among individuals of various levels of testosterone,” Keelan wrote.

“In our respectful view, the current criteria and its application has the potential to devalue women’s weightlifting and discourage female-born athletes from pursuing the sport at the elite level in the future.”

Hubbard, who previously competed in elite men’s weightlifting competitions as Gavin Hubbard, is set to become the first transgender athlete to represent New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games.

She pointed out in an interview with Stuff in December that the decision by the IOC to allow transgender athletes to compete in international events was made in 2003.

Hubbard initially declined to speak with media during last year’s world championships when she won two silver medals in the snatch in the +90kg class and for finishing second overall.

American coach Tim Swords, whose lifter Sarah Robles beat Hubbard to gold in both categories, said he was congratulated by multiple coaches and claimed “nobody wanted her to win”.

The Human Rights Commission in December backed Hubbard’s inclusion in New Zealand’s Commonwealth Games team.

“There is no valid reason to exclude trans women from competitive women’s sports. Laurel is a woman – not a man masquerading as a woman to gain medals or glory,” Taine Polkinghorne, a human rights advisor for sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics, told Stuff.

“She is an incredible athlete, who has met the International Olympic Committee regulations related to acceptable testosterone levels that enable her to compete in sporting competitions.

“Participation in sport and physical activity is a human right.”

The Commonwealth Games are now underway on the Gold Coast.


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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.