The USA Powerlifting federation has generated headline after headline for its ban on transgender athletes who use testosterone, but one thing has been sorely missing from the reports — the voices of the female powerlifters affected by the policy.
Donna Marts is one of those women. She stumbled into the powerlifting world at 43, when she hired a personal trainer to help her get into shape. “I was an engineer working in an office and sitting on my butt all day, and I had just gotten fat and lazy,” she told the Daily Caller. “And I thought I needed to do something about it, so I hired someone and started lifting weights.”
She won the first of seven world championships seven years later, and has taken on a voting role in the federation as an athlete’s representative. She plans to set a personal deadlifting record this year at age 59, on her way to an eighth world title. But she’s worried now about the future of the federation, which has been dragged into the glare of a negative media spotlight and faces a formal discrimination complaint in Minnesota over its policy that allowing transgender athletes to compete with women is unfair. (RELATED: The Real Story Behind USA Powerlifting’s Transgender Athlete Policy)
“What I don’t like to do — and I try to stop myself from doing it — is to be negative towards transgender people,” she told the Caller. “But when someone is calling you every name in the book, and you’re anti-this and anti-that, just because you want to lift drug free and you want to lift against biological women — it seems like they hate us. So it’s really hard not to be angry at them.”
Another long-time and voting member of the federation, Danna Snow, told the Caller she fears the discrimination complaint could result in the end of the federation and of drug-free powerlifting. “Over time, it would be the death of USA Powerlifting,” she told the Caller, referring to a scenario in which the state of Minnesota orders the federation to allow transgender athletes using testosterone to compete. “It would be the death of drug-free sports.”
She’s competed for more than a decade.
USA Powerlifting was founded in the ’70s by a group of lifters who were disillusioned by the prevalence of drug use in the sport at the time. Drug-free competition has remained a central premise of the group, which is now the largest federation in the country. A complete ban on drug use is strictly enforced — the federation excluded one boy from competition who was born without testicles. He was allowed to compete at a young age, but when he began using testosterone in order to go through puberty, he was disqualified from competition. Many older women who compete have chosen to forego hormone replacement therapy that could ease their transition through menopause, in order to continue to compete drug free.
In light of those cases, many members of the federation view it as deeply unfair to allow transgender athletes a special exemption from the rules. Marts cited another case in which a woman going through cancer chose not to receive hormone treatment which would have eased her suffering, because she wanted to continue to compete.
“It’s insulting when people just cast that aside like it doesn’t matter,” Marts said. “The activists say those people should have complained, but no. We don’t want to complain, because we are that committed to being drug free. It is a badge of honor.”
Although USA Powerlifting has had the transgender rule on the books for years, and enforced it in multiple cases, the federation didn’t draw negative scrutiny until it refused transgender athlete JayCee Cooper from competition in the past year. Cooper is a biological male who wants to compete with women, and argues it’s not unfair since testosterone-suppressing drugs used to transition offset any biological advantage. Cooper has equated the policy to genetic elimination, and is behind the discrimination complaint in Minnesota — a bid from Cooper to change the rules failed overwhelmingly in a vote this year. (RELATED: Liberals Are At War With Science In The Transgender Athlete Debate)
Cooper has been the subject of glowing and sympathetic media coverage, while the views and people of USA Powerlifting have been largely dismissed. Marts told the Caller she takes it personally, as she considers members of the federation family.
“It’s hard to see your organization be trashed in the news, when that organization is us,” Marts said. “I mean we’re all people, so in a sense they’re saying all these negative things about all of us, and they’ve really done very little to understand our position.”
USA Powerlifting commissioned a study of the available scientific literature on the competitive advantage between men and women in sports, and analyzed data from more than 17,000 lifters and 1,300 meets over a 7-year period. They found an unambiguous and clear advantage over women for anyone who has gone through puberty as a biological male, even if that person later takes drugs that suppress testosterone levels. They explained the study in detail at an annual meet this year, and took questions and input from members on the proposal from Cooper to change the transgender policy. The voting members from each state overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
Executive members of the federation have received death threats, and many members who didn’t openly embrace Cooper’s proposal have been bullied and harassed online, USA Powerlifting Federation president Larry Maile told the Caller.
Snow, who is the Washington state chair, told the Caller most of the members she’s talked to about the policy want to include transgender athletes, but don’t want to give up their drug free culture or a fair competition in order to do so. “It’s a conundrum,” she said, but expressed frustration that the transgender activists driving the conversation are refusing to compromise.
“We want to see some kind of inclusion, and we have invited members of the transgender community to the table to try to figure out a way to solve this issue, and so far they haven’t been willing to sit down and talk about solutions,” she said.
Marts told the Caller she’s talked to many women in her capacity as an athlete’s representative, who support the federation’s policy on transgender athletes, but do not want to speak out publicly for fear of harassment and being ostracized. One woman called her crying following a Minnesota meet in which a few members disrupted the competition to protest on behalf of Cooper. She was upset because the disruption prevented her kids from watching her compete. (RELATED: The Most Cited Study In The Transgender Athlete Debate Is Bad Science)
“It was her first meet ever,” Marts said. “She wanted so badly for her children to see her lift, because they only thought of her as mom in one little niche. Here was mom getting out of her comfort zone and being a strong mom, and doing something that intimidated her, but she was going to get past it anyway. She couldn’t have her kids come, because it was such a negative atmosphere.”
Marts said other women were “terrified” by how they were treated at the meet, while some were just angry. “I’ve had women come to me and say, ‘Please stand up for us, because nobody else will.’ … You know, you just want to lift, and people are calling you all sorts of things. And you think, ‘My God, I’m doing this for fun. Why should I be subject to that kind of treatment?'”
“We can disagree about something, but we don’t have to hate one another,” Marts added. “Right now there just seems to be too much anger, too much, ‘You don’t understand me,’ from the transgender community, when they don’t even want to take a step to try to understand us and where we’re coming from.” (RELATED: Media Reports On Transgender Athletes All Seem To Be Missing One Thing)
Snow said the activist approach amounts to, “Give us what we want, or we’re going to sue you.”
The federation doubled down on its policy in a statement following news of the discrimination complaint, and has no plans to budge according to Maile, unless the voting members are persuaded to change their minds. Snow and Marts expressed the same belief as Maile, that the policy is not based on discrimination for any reason except fair play.
“The situation doesn’t spread around the same lines as other situations of discrimination,” Snow told the Caller. “They don’t qualify strictly because of the hormones. The hormone situation is a problem, because that’s what’s giving them the advantage in sports.”
Speaking to the backlash she received for voting against the policy change, Marts said she’s happy to stand up to activists she described as bullies on behalf of the federation, particularly for the other women who are reluctant or afraid to speak out.
“Give them someone else to throw darts at,” she said, referring to this story. “I don’t care, because I speak for a lot of people, because I’ve had a lot of women talk to me about it. There is a growing number of women that are just tired of being pushed around. So it won’t take much more pushing to have them really take note.”
“Instead of having people get angry, let’s resolve things, and come up with something that we all can tolerate,” she added. “But let’s come up with it based on data and based on reality, not just emotions.”