Transgendered Canadian Races toward Olympic history
It's been three years since the International Olympic Committee approved rules to allow transgendered athletes to become Olympians. A Canadian woman who was born male may become the first person to test those rules next year at the Beijing Games.
By Mackenzie Grisdale
November 29, 2007
isten Worley, a Canadian track cyclist, qualifies for the 2008 Olympics at time trials this spring, she'll become the first openly transgendered Olympian in history.
Kristen Worley, a Torontonian, has completed the transitioning process and hopes to compete at the 2008 Olympics.
Photo provided by Worley.
For Worley, 39, it's not just a personal triumph. Sure, she's made sacrifices, like taking time away from her family to train for hours each week. But each stroke of the pedals is worth it if it helps society respect those, like her, who were born another sex, she said.
Transgendered people are born with genitalia that don't match the gender they feel they are in their minds. The American Psychiatric Association calls that mismatch Gender Identity Disorder
Some transgendered people, including Worley, decide to have a sex change
operation and hormone therapy to treat what they see as the conflict between their bodies and minds.
Worley calls that process "transitioning." She also uses the term "transitioned" instead of "transgendered," because it refers only to people who have completed surgery and now have genitalia that match the sex they always perceived themselves to be, she said.
Making competition possible: The Stockholm Consensus
Nobody who's admitted to going through that surgery has ever become an Olympian, said Dr. Myron Genel, an endocrinologist and professor emeritus at the Yale University School of Medicine.
There just weren't any guidelines to allow transgendered people to compete until 2004, when the International Olympic Committee approved what's now called the Stockholm Consensus, a set of rules Genel helped create in 2003.
The Stockholm Consensus
was a natural cap to the IOC's changes to sex testing rules in the late 1990s, said Genel. After years of trouble with verifying athletes' genders, the IOC realized it still needed a system to deal with people who changed their sex, he said.
The Consensus has three main rules:
Transgendered athletes must have surgery to create the genitalia of their new sex and they must wait at least two years from the time their original genitalia were removed before competing.
They must have had hormone treatment to lessen the chance they'll have an advantage over other athletes.
"Appropriate official authorities" must legally recognize the athlete's new sex.
But those rules aren't making everybody happy.
Kristen Worley criticizes the very Consensus that might let her make Olympic history. In her opinion, the Consensus is hostile to transgendered athletes because it's meant to protect other athletes from the "threat" of competing against people who were born the opposite sex, she said.
But Genel stands by the Consensus and was surprised any athletes were angry about what it says. "I guess I'm not up to date. I didn't realize there was some criticism of it," he said.
"It was really an attempt to...get ahead of this and to look at it proactively rather than reactively, and to try to determine some better criteria that could be used. If the opposite is the perception, it's a gross misinterpretation of what was being done."
Olympics still "not open to everybody"
"As much as I'm cheering for Kristen, I don't think the Olympics are ready for her yet."
But Worley isn't the IOC's only critic.
Michelle Dumaresq, a professional downhill mountain biker who races for Canada's national mountainbike team, is also transgendered, or "trans" as she says. Her sport isn't in the Olympics, but she's kept an eye on the IOC's guidelines.
The rule requiring athletes to get confirmation of their new sex from "official authorities" in their home countries is unfair because not all nations support transgendered people, said Dumaresq.
"If you're from a Western developed country and you're trans, and you're an athlete, and you're really good, sure--you can go to the Games. But it's not open to everybody and until that changes I don't think (the rules are) really fair," said Dumaresq.
|"My birth certificate says female...That was what let me race."
But Olympic officials must also review each athlete's application to compete on a case by case basis--even if the athlete doesn't meet some of the other requirements, said Genel.
"If somebody felt that the criteria were too strict, that would still not preclude their case being evaluated," he said.
But until the rules are equally fair for everyone, Worley should hold off on her Olympic dream, said Dumaresq.
"As much as I'm cheering for Kristen, I don't think the Olympics are ready for her yet," she said.
Still, Dumaresq isn't surprised the top candidate to become the first openly transgendered Olympian is from Canada.
"Canada has a greater understanding and respect for differences," she said.
Dumaresq got a glimpse of the country's openness to transgendered issues when she needed the government to recognize her new sex after completing her transition.
"My birth certificate says female--that was the biggest thing in the world. That was what let me race," she said.
Canada: Taking the lead
But approving changes to birth certificates isn't all Canada has done.
"Canada is certainly taking the bull by the horns and setting a great example for the rest of the world."
The Canadian government is the first in the world to set aside funding to make room in sport for transgendered athletes, said Dr. Joe Quigg, who belongs to the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine
, and who is also the team physician for Water Ski and Wakeboard Canada, with which Worley competes when she's not cycling.
Quigg was part of discussions with AthletesCAN
on behalf of CASM to determine how to spend a $71,000 grant from Sport Canada to look at how sports associations should handle transgendered athletes.
"Canada is certainly taking the bull by the horns and setting a great example for the rest of the world," said Quigg.
Kristen Worley waterskis on Canada's national team.
Photo provided by Worley.
Officials from Canadian Heritage, the federal department in charge of Sport Canada, declined interview requests. However, Josianne Jalbert, media relations officer for Canadian Heritage, issued a statement about the government's views on transgendered issues.
"The Government of Canada strongly supports the Canadian Sport Policy goal to enhance the number of Canadians from all segments of society involved in quality sport activities at all levels and in all forms of participation," said Jalbert in an e-mail that also included the government's official background document
on athletes who have transitioned to a new sex.
"It is widely assumed that transitioned females compete at an advantage over biologically-born females. There is a growing body of evidence to show that transitioned females actually compete at a disadvantage to all other female competitors," the backgrounder states.
More research needed
But Quigg said there aren't enough studies to come to any conclusions about the advantages or disadvantages a transgendered athlete may have over other competitors.
To fix that, he recommended that the grant to AthletesCAN go toward expanding the "body of evidence" mentioned in the Canadian Heritage background document.
"I'm just like any other girl."
Regardless of what further research shows, transgendered athletes like Worley should get to play at whatever level of competition they can qualify for, said Quigg.
Quigg knows that many women athletes would say it's unfair for a former man to compete against them. But an athlete should always compete with people of whatever sex he or she is at the time, regardless of whether that athlete has had a sex change, said Quigg.
"The reality is these are females competing in female sports," said Quigg. "It's kind of like saying, 'Should tall women not be allowed to play volleyball because they have a genetic advantage?'"
As for the Olympics, Quigg isn't sure if Worley will qualify. But the important thing is that she keeps on pedalling, he said.
"It's giving others strength to pursue their goals and live life how they perceive they should live it," said Quigg.
And that's always been Worley's dream. She wants to be a role model for other transgendered people, and to show society that transitioning isn't something to be ashamed of, she said.
"I'm just like any other girl," she said. "It's so important that everybody understands this isn't just about me."
With files from Nicole Visschedyk