These long-delayed and contentious Olympic games, now in their second week, have shown us athletes enjoying the thrill of victory and hanging their heads as they reckon with the agony of defeat. But today, for the first time, we’ve also witnessed what is finally an Olympic opportunity for all.
Around the world this morning, transgender, nonbinary, and trans nonbinary people tuned in and clicked online to watch out trans woman Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand lift weights and trans nonbinary midfielder Quinn of Team Canada compete on the pitch against some of the most famous names in soccer. It is their first Olympics for each of these out and proud competitors. Chelsea Wolfe, an out trans BMX athlete, is also in Tokyo as an alternate member of Team USA.
For Hubbard, the headlines say it all: “Hubbard Makes History.” “Crashes Out In Weightlifting.” “Exits Early.” “Fails In Medal Bid.” You can almost read the smirks in the content posted by conservative outlets like Fox News and the New York Post as those stories devoted as much copy to the “debate” over her right to compete as they did to reporting on how she performed. Which, admittedly, wasn’t good enough.
Hubbard’s three failed attempts in the 87+ kg snatch were crushing. And yet she smiled before leaving the mat for the last time, making a heart symbol with her hands and thanking those who cheered her on. Seeing that “DNF”—for “Did Not Finish”—next to her name on the big board, watching her walk off the platform clearly disappointed, I truly felt sorry for her. To have come this far must be heartbreaking, and I wonder if she will now retire and resume her very private life. Even as someone who was hounded by the harsh media spotlight when I came out as trans, I cannot fathom the pressure she’s been under these last few weeks. The struggle is real.
“Of course, I’m not entirely unaware of the controversy which surrounds my participation in these Games,” Hubbard said after exiting the competition. “And, as such, I’d particularly like to thank the IOC, for, I think, really affirming their commitment to the principles of Olympism, and establishing that sport is something for all people. It is inclusive. It is accessible.”
Hubbard added that she wanted to thank the International Weightlifting Federation, saying, “they too have shown that weightlifting is an activity that’s open to all of the people in the world.”
But the truth is, Hubbard would have lost even if she had won. Consider that had Hubbard nailed all three lifts and then gone on to win gold, something China’s Li Wenwen achieved, it’s unlikely she’d win the public support she would have deserved.
Hubbard wasn’t anticipated to do better than bronze, at best, and critics would have lambasted any medal as having been stolen from one of her cisgender competitors. But in failing to finish in this event, she still wins a place in history as the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics. No one can take that from her.
Hubbard, of course, didn’t compete in a political and social vacuum, but quite the opposite. We’re still reeling from a legislative onslaught that is ongoing in the U.S., with at least five states still considering laws that ban trans student-athletes from competing in school sports.
Megan Rapinoe is one of the sports heroes who have spoken out against these laws and bills. So, sad as I was to watch her and my other USWNT heroes Christen Press, Tobin Heath, and Adrianna Franch get shut out, I cheered as Quinn started for Team Canada and played a key role in their squelching of the Team USA’s hopes. I panicked toward the end of the first half when Quinn got knocked down; it seemed they might have been hurt, then breathed a sigh of relief as they got back up and roared back into action. They played 60 minutes, through the stoppage time and for part of the second half, too.
Quinn and their team now advance to the gold-medal match against the winner of the Sweden vs. Australia semifinal; the USWNT will play for the bronze medal against the loser of that match. As Rapinoe told NBC Sports, “This sucks.” No doubt! But this also means the first trans nonbinary Olympian has a shot at gold.
While the average observer might focus on what was won, and what was lost, what I saw were athletes who persevered. How the right-wing media and social troll mob fixated on Hubbard would be enough for any of us to want to give up. And yet she didn’t.
Some will argue Hubbard didn’t belong on this world stage, either because of her gender identity or because of her performance today. To them, I say no, because she qualified, met every rule and regulation, and unfortunately came up short.
So what now? What will the hard work by Hubbard and Quinn mean for trans, trans nonbinary, and nonbinary athletes hoping for their chance? I spoke with three trans athletes: Triathlete and advocate Chris Mosier, powerlifter JayCee Cooper, and runner turned researcher Joanna Harper.
“I’m thrilled that the world gets to see transgender and nonbinary representation in Tokyo,” Mosier told The Daily Beast. “I’ve worked for over a decade to see this moment play out. Since coming out in 2010, I’ve dedicated my athletic career and my advocacy to creating a pathway for transgender and nonbinary people to not only participate in the sports they love but also compete at the highest level of their sports.
“From challenging the IOC policy in 2015 to get the policy updated and the surgery requirement removed to being the first trans athlete in the Olympic Trials in the gender with which they identify, I am as proud of this moment of several trans and nonbinary Olympians participating in Tokyo 2020 as I am of any of my own athletic achievements.”
The International Olympics Committee is expected to change the rules for trans women following the Summer Games in Tokyo, lowering the threshold for testosterone from 10 nanomoles per liter to 5 nmol/L. More than 95 percent of cisgender women have testosterone levels below 2 nmol/L, so it’s not surprising. But Cooper told me she wishes the IOC and other sports organizations would reflect on their policies excluding competitors who are trans.
“Instead of looking for arbitrary ways to restrict the participation of athletes that have in no way shown an overwhelming advantage, the conversation needs to refocus on how sport can be an inclusive space where meaningful competition can occur,” she said. “Excluding and limiting the participation of trans and nonbinary athletes is far from fairness, and in practice, is often violent, violating, and oppressive.”
"It is certainly possible that factors beyond T [testosterone] should be examined when differentiating between male and female athletes in some sports, but there is currently no good substitute for T in its policy role," Harper said. She wrote an op-ed for The Age, arguing Hubbard earned the right to compete against cisgender women in Tokyo. “Clearly, she has advantages, but equally her advantages are not overwhelming,” Harper wrote. Harper was an adviser to the IOC on trans participation.
“It’s important to point to the ways that trans and intersex sports policies have been used to attack anyone that doesn’t fit a very narrow definition of womanhood and related performance,” Cooper added. “As this Olympic cycle has shown, the victims are more often than not Black women, both cis and trans. This can’t be acceptable and yet we are seeing it happen.”
Cooper pointed to the efforts to bar 800m gold medalist Caster Semenya from competing in her signature event, the disqualification of NCAA All-American CeCé Telfer from competing, and unsuccessful lawsuits to strip Connecticut sprinters Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller of their high school records.
I asked Mosier and Cooper what message they hope young people will take away from this historic moment.
“For any aspiring high-level athlete, regardless of your gender identity, I encourage you to put your head down and put in the work,” Mosier said. “It doesn’t matter what other people say or think. You can let your athletic performance speak for you.”
“Do what you love to do, break through barriers, and always take care of yourself,” added Cooper. “Every time we show up, every time you show up and do your best, the heart and entirety of a community is pulling for you.”