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Is USA Powerlifting’s gender policy ‘separate but equal’? The feud rages on.

Transgender powerlifter JayCee Cooper sued USA Powerlifting because the organization would not allow her to compete against cisgender women. A Minnesota judge recently ruled in her favor and ordered USA Powerlifting to change its policies. (Courtesy JayCee Cooper)
8 min

When the furor over transgender athletes competing in women’s sports arrived at powerlifting’s doorstep, the sport’s leaders pitched what they said was a fair and simple solution: a new competition category for athletes of all genders, including transgender and nonbinary lifters.

The plan came amid a contentious legal battle and thrust the sport and its athletes to the center of a political firestorm. A Minnesota judge ruled last month that USA Powerlifting discriminated against a trans lifter by barring her from competition and found the organization’s MX classification insufficient, ordering USA Powerlifting to amend its policies. The judge’s sharply worded ruling ramped up the stakes of a case being closely watched by sports leaders, lawmakers and ­LGBTQ communities that are facing political and legal attacks nationwide.

“Segregation and separation are the hallmarks of discrimination,” Minnesota District Judge Patrick Diamond wrote in a Feb. 27 decision. “Separate but equal is unavailing. Discrimination claims are not defeated because separate services, facilities, accommodations were made available.”

USA Powerlifting argues that allowing transgender women to compete against cisgender women would be competitively unfair and leave the organization vulnerable to legal challenges from cis athletes and their advocates. USA Powerlifting on Friday notified the Minnesota Court of Appeals that it plans to appeal.

“We have been thrust into the front lines of what really has become a culture war. And we never wanted that,” Larry Maile, president of USA Powerlifting, said in an interview. “All we wanted was a fair [lifting] platform.”

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The lawsuit was brought by JayCee Cooper, a transgender woman who in 2018 was blocked from competing in USA Powerlifting’s female category. After filing a discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2019, she sued USA Powerlifting in 2021, arguing that the organization was violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The organization created the MX division just days before her case was filed — two years after Cooper had been initially barred from competing. The new category had only four competitors last year, according to court filings. USA Powerlifting has a membership of 27,400 lifters and sanctions more than 400 competitions per year.

“Trans existence is under attack,” said Jess Braverman, an attorney with Gender Justice, a Minnesota-based legal and policy advocacy organization that has backed Cooper’s case. “... There’s not any demonstrable evidence that trans inclusion in any way harms women’s sport. But these conversations are happening in a vacuum.”

Amid a broader political fight over transgender rights, sports leagues in recent years have been forced to grapple with how to include transgender athletes. Many have implemented policies they say are aimed at balancing issues of fairness and inclusion. But USA Powerlifting’s policy is among the first to be tested in court, Maile said, making it a bellwether for other governing bodies.

Meanwhile, federal and state lawmakers are moving quickly to supersede organizations’ rule books, particularly at the youth and scholastic levels. Eighteen states have created laws that restrict trans athletes’ access to school sports, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit LGBTQ think tank.

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Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) introduced a bill last month called the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2023 that seeks to amend Title IX and targets transgender women in sports. The bill, which has 78 Republican co-sponsors, would bar any program from receiving federal funding if it allows transgender women to compete against cisgender women. A similar version of the bill was introduced in the Senate last week by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and has 25 Republican co-sponsors.

Maile said USA Powerlifting cannot afford to change its classifications. If it were to comply with Diamond’s ruling and allow transgender women to compete against cisgender women, he said, the organization would be in violation of discrimination laws that are in place in more than two dozen states.

“We’re sort of in an uncomfortable position. And the uncomfortable position is we’re trying to balance the needs of cis women and trans women and various groups,” he said. “And those are, at least in the case of the Minnesota situation, conflicting.”

Maile is a clinical psychologist who has led USA Powerlifting since 2003. The gap between the average performance of men and women is more pronounced in powerlifting than in other sports, he said, because it’s largely dependent on brute strength. While competitive weightlifting — at least the version seen at the Olympic level — comprises two lifts with plenty of technical nuance, powerlifting is focused on maximum strength and is performed in a single repetition on a lifting platform.

“You can be, honestly, terrible technically,” Maile said, “and the stronger person wins out anyway.”

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In court filings, USA Powerlifting presented data it said shows the differences between male and female lifters, making the argument that transgender women who went through puberty benefited from a boost of testosterone that has a lasting effect well after transitioning to female. “A gulf we couldn’t overcome,” Maile called it. The organization presented experts who found men hold a 65 percent performance advantage in powerlifting; even after taking testosterone-restricting drugs, “strength reductions were minimal, only 4% over 12 months,” USA Powerlifting said in court filings.

The judge, though, ruled USA Powerlifting took a “narrow view of ‘fairness’ ” and merely sought to justify its exclusion of trans women.

“The record is completely devoid of any effort USAPL may have made to even understand, much less address, the physical or psychological harms of exclusion or the benefits of inclusion,” he wrote. “USAPL attempted to calculate a hypothetical performance advantage, but it refused to even consider the harmful effects of its policy or the potential benefits of a more inclusive policy, to Cooper, to others similarly situated, to its organization, or to the broader community.”

Creating a separate category for trans lifters is not sufficient, Diamond wrote in his 46-page ruling, at times citing the hot-button political debate over bathroom access for transgender people.

“Just as it does not matter that one may be able to purchase a beer at a saloon other than one that refuses service to people of color, it does not matter that Cooper could compete somewhere else or as someone else,” he wrote. “The harm is in making a person pretend to be something different, the implicit message being that who they are is less than. That is the very essence of separation and segregation.”

The judge gave USA Powerlifting two weeks to change its classification rules. The organization is hoping for a stay pending appeal, which would allow it to continue staging events with male and female classifications along with the MX category available for transgender and nonbinary competitors.

Maile said the judgment puts Cooper’s rights ahead of those of cisgender lifters, jeopardizing the integrity and fairness of competition. It essentially leaves the organization in the same place it was two years ago when it created the MX category.

“The question remains for us: . . . How do we balance the needs of trans women and cis women?” he said. “And how do we avoid this situation not just in Minnesota but across the nation? How do we assure the rights of cis women while providing opportunities for trans women?”

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According to court filings, as USA Powerlifting’s executive committee debated the issue, some wanted the organization to reconsider its decision to bar Cooper from the female division. Maile resisted, though, and apparently became frustrated with the repeated efforts by Cooper and her supporters to challenge USA Powerlifting’s policies, writing in one email that “someone did not get beaten enough as a child. These people were children screaming in Walmart and their parents did nothing. Now they are adults and still screaming.”

Maile said his comments were cherry-picked from more than 30,000 emails the organization provided during discovery. Neither he nor any member of the executive committee is transphobic, he said.

“It’s not a crusade on our part. It’s an issue of trying to use the best data available to make the best decision for the most people,” he said.

The case is scheduled to proceed to a trial on damages in May. Maile said the organization is willing to take the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, if necessary. Legal costs are mounting, but for USA Powerlifting, Maile said the outcome of the case is a matter of survival.

“When you consider the rights of all of our various constituencies, it may be the hill we die on,” he said. “So we will continue because we believe that we’re right in terms of what ultimately are the differences and what constitutes fairness — not in all sports and not out there in society but what constitutes fairness on our platform.”