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Gender, Sex, and Powerlifting

With a biologically male athlete poised to break a Canadian women’s record, it’s time for the sport’s leaders to acknowledge the reality of sexual dimorphism.

· 11 min read
Gender, Sex, and Powerlifting
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One benefit of working at Quillette is that we are permitted—indeed, encouraged—to take deep editorial dives into subjects that other publications might regard as obscure. My recent article, “Disc Golf’s Lia Thomas Moment,” offered a case in point. While I may be passionate about disc golf, I freely concede that it isn’t what some might call a high-profile or prestigious sport. (One of my friends uncharitably refers to it on Facebook as “dork discus.”) Yet humble though the sport may be, it offered Quillette readers a detailed case study in a thorny issue now affecting pretty much every sport on the planet: What to do with trans-identified biological men who seek to compete in women’s sports categories? On one hand, we all want to be humane and “inclusive.” Sport should be for everyone. On the other hand, permitting larger, faster, stronger, male bodies into protected female spaces can destroy the integrity of women’s sports.

I am pleased to report that shortly after my Quillette article appeared, the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), which formerly had taken an extremely permissive attitude toward biologically male players, announced a much stricter policy that, at the highest levels, forbids bio-men from competing with women unless the player in question “began medical transition (for example, by taking puberty-suppressing medication) during Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.” In other words, no one who went through male puberty is eligible.

2022 PDGA survey results from 33,805 members on the question of whether “transgender women should be allowed to compete with other women.”

The PDGA’s abrupt change in policy was based on (a) the results of a mass-participation survey, which showed that a majority of disc golfers, especially at the elite levels, wanted female-protected divisions to be reserved for biological women; and (b) a PDGA Medical Subcommittee report on “Considerations for Women’s Sex-Restricted Divisions in PDGA Events,” which noted as follows:

At the 2022 PDGA Long Drive competition, Natalie Ryan, a transgender woman, finished in fourth place among the women competitors with a throw of 430 feet. That distance would have been last in the men’s competition. Of 18 sport activities presented in Figure 1, a 26-30% advantage for males in the disc golf drive would place that event close to the top in terms of being most disadvantageous to women. This would appear to demonstrate a clearly disproportionate disadvantage to women in competition with chromosomal (cisgender) men. In support of this point, the most powerful argument that males have innate advantages in disc golf lies in examination of PDGA ratings data, which is based on quality of play in tournament competitions. When well over a thousand of the top-rated players are males, any argument against their having a significant advantage over girls and women falls woefully short.
Figure 1 from the PDGA Medical Subcommittee report on “Considerations for Women’s Sex-Restricted Divisions in PDGA Events,” as referenced in the block quote above.

A common pattern that has emerged in a number of sports—including disc golf and, as discussed below, powerlifting—is that trans women were generally welcomed into female-protected categories during the 2000s and 2010s, in keeping with the rise of the trans-rights movement during this period. Then, years later, a backlash developed, typically following the success of male-bodied trans-identified women who excelled in competitions despite having relatively limited experience in the sport, or after having previously competed as also-rans in male categories. Examples here include Lia Thomas (swimming), Laurel Hubbard (weightlifting), and, as noted above, disc golf’s Natalie Ryan.

The latest example is Anne Andres, a biologically male Alberta-based athlete who now routinely demolishes the (female) competition in powerlifting, a popular strength sport that combines three separate weightlifting movements—squat, bench press, and deadlift. Andres has entered nine regional Canadian Powerlifting Union (CPU)-sanctioned competitions, winning eight of them (and coming second in the other), generating personal bests of 435.4 pounds in the squat, 270 pounds in bench press, and 545.6 pounds in deadlift along the way.

Source: USA Powerlifting Lifter’s Handbook.

A competitor’s total score in powerlifting is equal to the sum of the weight lifted in all three lifts, which in the case of Andres has shot up from 733 pounds in Andres’s first competition in late 2019 to a stunning 1,234.6 pounds less than two years later—an astonishing 500-pound jump. Indeed, Andres’s best deadlift result is now only about five pounds off the Canadian women’s record, set in 2021 by Brittany Schlater. (Andres already owns the Alberta records for bench press, deadlift, and total score.) And when Canada’s elite powerlifters assemble later this month in British Columbia for the 2023 CPU National Championships, many believe, Andres will smash that national record, thereby accelerating the same process of reckoning with biology that other sports have already gone through.

One complicating factor here is that, as in many sports, the rules governing eligibility for trans women vary from country to country. Many international competitions are governed by the testosterone limits set down by the International Powerlifting Federation, while American powerlifting groups started cracking down rigorously on biologically male competitors several years ago. But in Canada, CPU policy dictates that biological men seeking to powerlift as females need do nothing except register their self-identified female gender with the Canadian government—something that can be done by filling out a one-page form.

The CPU justifies its hyper-permissive policy by reference to “Creating Inclusive Environments for Trans Participants in Canadian Sport,” a guidance document developed by a government-funded group called the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). This is an organization that, as recently as last November, was still attempting to rehabilitate the debunked claim that (as the CCES puts it) “available evidence indicates trans women who have undergone testosterone suppression have no clear biological advantages over cis women in elite sport.” As Emma Hilton and co-author Tommy R. Lundberg wrote in a 2021 Sports Medicine paper, longitudinal studies demonstrate that the lean body mass, muscle size, and bone density of biological men are only “trivially affected” by the kind of testosterone-suppression regimes typically prescribed by sports federations as a condition for competing as women. And the CCES document was duly mocked widely upon its release (in part thanks to the CCES’s frequent reliance on activist jargon—such as “cissexism, transphobia, transmisogyny and overlapping systems of oppression”).

Astoundingly, the CPU’s policy goes beyond even the seemingly maximalist pro-trans position suggested by the CCES, since the CPU doesn’t even require that female-identifying bio-men suppress their testosterone. This helps explain why Andres could become such a dominant force within Canadian female powerlifting in the space of just two years. In this regard, here’s a relevant passage from the above-referenced article by Hilton and Lundberg, entitled, “Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport: Perspectives on Testosterone Suppression and Performance Advantage”:

In the top/open weight category of Olympic weightlifting, in the absence of weight (and associated height) limits, maximum male lifting strength exceeds female lifting strength by nearly 40%. This is further manifested in powerlifting, where the male record … is 65% higher than the female record in the open weight category of the World Open Classic Records. Further analysis of Olympic weightlifting data shows that the 55-kg male record holder is 6.5% stronger than the 69-kg female record holder (294 kg vs 276 kg), and that the 69-kg male record is 3.2% higher than the record held in the female open category by a 108-kg female (359 kg vs 348 kg). This Olympic weightlifting analysis reveals key differences between male and female strength capacity. It shows that, even after adjustment for mass, biological males are significantly stronger (30%) than females, and that females who are 60% heavier than males do not overcome these strength deficits.

Another common pattern one observes in these controversies is that while many female competitors feel uncomfortable, or even enraged, about the presence of biological men encroaching on their competitive categories, few speak out, for fear of being labelled a bigot. When I wrote about trans women in disc golf, for instance, only one competitive female, Jennifer Castro, agreed to have her name appear in the published article. The two top touring women who comprised my main sources didn’t want their names used—despite the fact that, by their own estimate, “about 80 percent” of touring female disc golf pros agreed with their concerns. (When the PDGA released its survey data after my article appeared, it turned out their 80 percent estimate had been almost exactly correct.)

When it comes to powerlifting, the dynamic is similar. As the International Consortium on Female Sport noted in a recent letter to the Ontario Powerlifting Association,

many female powerlifters … feel helpless in the face of an ideology that expects them to shut up or be labelled as “hateful.” They are too polite to say openly that they resent the unfairness of having male athletes compete in their category. And those who do speak experience a type of bullying that stifles freedom to express their frustration.

But for some women, exasperation eventually gets the better of decorum—as with April Hutchinson, an Ontario-based female powerlifter who’s made a name for herself not only as an elite competitor within the sport, but also as one of the few women willing to openly critique the CPU’s laissez-faire policies.

In a wide-ranging interview last month, Hutchinson told me that she’d come to the sport during a low moment in her life: She was working as a surveillance agent at an Ontario casino—a depressing job that required her to circulate among the regulars as they gambled away their cars, houses, and marriages. “It was basically an addict’s heaven—gambling, booze, everything,” she told me. “And so I ended up in rehab.” Once she got out, powerlifting became Hutchinson’s new addiction.

Hutchinson had been hoping for a “top five or six” finish in British Columbia, a goal that will be more difficult with Andres set to appear on the podium. “But at this point, I actually don’t really care how I place, to be honest. And I never wanted to bring gender into this, and I really do want Anne to lift,” Hutchinson told me. “I want everyone to lift. This is just a question of what category you’re in.” Hutchinson’s preferred option, she says, is the creation of a new category that would preserve the dignity of trans women while not compromising female-designated competitions.

One fact I try to emphasize when I cover this issue is that the trans women at the centre of these controversies aren’t “cheaters,” as some culture warriors like to call them. As Hutchinson freely concedes, Andres, much like Lia Thomas, Laurel Hubbard, and Natalie Ryan, has followed the rules. Nor is there any evidence that Andres became a woman for the sake of dominating the female field. “I never touched a barbell my entire life until seven full years after [transition] surgery,” Andres says. “I didn’t ‘switch to win medals.’”

As I discovered, Andres is an unusual figure who doesn’t play to stereotype: Unlike similarly situated trans women in other sports, she plainly admits that athletes who’ve transitioned from male to female can maintain a competitive advantage over biological women. Andres has also said that, “When I get the world record deadlift, I am fine with a little asterisk beside my name.” In other words, this is someone who seems to be actively grappling with the tension between the science of human sexual dimorphism and her own powerfully felt desire to live as a woman.

Putting the issue of gender politics to one side, Andres has become a sort of celebrity (or anti-hero, depending on your perspective) within the Canadian powerlifting community thanks to her Instagram channel, which features a steady flow of caustic attacks, taunts, ranting, and sometimes genuinely funny quips. At her worst, Andres can come off as snarky and emotionally erratic, even trollish. But at other times, she seems to sincerely want to reconcile with her critics, declaring, in one post, “We need to have a good conversation and move forward together.” Notwithstanding Andres’s sometimes regrettable outbursts, I find it difficult not to admire her willingness to engage in the cut and thrust of debate over this issue, given that she could just as easily employ the standard rhetorical grift of claiming that the very act of discussion would comprise a transphobic attack upon the collective trans soul.

“Trans women have an advantage over natal women, according to most scientific studies,” Andres told me when I asked her for comment. But she rejects the idea of pushing trans women into a separate category because doing so would force some to reveal their trans identity, and thereby “put [them] in danger of harassment or literal violence/death just to compete.”

Once a Man, Never a Woman
In an extraordinary new book, Shannon Thrace describes her disintegrating marriage to a man consumed by narcissism and gender dysphoria.

That may seem overly dramatic. But Andres reminds me that not everyone lives in Canada, where LGBT rights are relatively advanced. “I chose to out myself because I live in one of the safest countries in the world, and [yet even] I still receive constant harassment and threats … Is [the current policy] fair?” Andres asks. “Not really. [But] the other options are worse.”

The unfortunate reality, of course, is that there is no policy that would satisfy both Andres and Hutchinson, since their respective demands are mutually exclusive. And ultimately, it is Hutchinson’s view that is destined to prevail—not just in powerlifting, but in all sports—since the science of biological sex differences is unchanging, while the transgender-rights movement is a political artifact that already seems to be on the wane.

Moreover, there is simply no way that the world’s women, once fully mobilized on this issue, will permit the statistically tiny global constituency known as trans women to compromise the integrity of female sport. And even if one has sympathy for Andres’s position—as I do—it’s questionable whether the CPU is doing her any long-term favours by persisting with an unpopular and unsustainable policy that has already made her a lightning rod for resentment within the sport she loves.

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