Gender on the Course

Pat Summitt Plaza Photo

Gender on the Course

A rally against trans athletes is planned for this weekend’s cycling championships. LBGTQ advocates say it’s more about politics than sports.

by scott barker • June 22, 2023
Pat Summitt Plaza Photo
A rally against transgender female athletes participating in women's sports is planned for Pat Summitt Plaza on Sunday.

At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, shortly after the conclusion of the women’s road race and awards ceremony at the 2023 USA Cycling Pro Road National Championships in downtown Knoxville, a rally protesting the participation of transgender athletes is scheduled to start on the University of Tennessee campus.

Cycling rules on transgender athletes are based on testosterone levels.

The Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think tank focused on women’s issues, and partner organizations will hold the rally to oppose the policies of USA Cycling and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) that allow transgender female athletes to compete in women’s events.

Current and former female athletes, and other speakers, including Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, will gather at Pat Summitt Plaza to push for a rule that would prevent athletes born male who have undergone gender reassignment treatment from competing in women’s races. 

“Our message is simple,” said Riley Gaines, a former All-American swimmer and an outspoken opponent of transgender athletes in women’s sports. “Our bodies, our sports. We are standing up for women and demanding the UCI and USA Cycling stop discriminating against female athletes and establish rules to distinguish between the sexes to give women cyclists a fair chance on the road.” 

She continued, “There’s no equity, fairness, sportsmanship or opportunity for women to succeed at an elite level without sex-based categories.”

Inga Thompson, a renowned cyclist who is a 10-time national champion, three-time Olympian and two-time podium finisher in the Women’s Tour de France, said women’s sports were created for women. 

“Women fought for years to have sex-separated sports,” she said. “No amount of testosterone suppression mitigates the advantages of being born male.” 

John Camp and Story VanNess, CEO and assistant director, respectively, of Knox Pride, the local LGBTQ advocacy organization, slammed the rally organizers for espousing discrimination.

“Though we’re not surprised, we are saddened to see increasingly misogynist and anti-trans rhetoric from a women’s organization that states they seek to protect women’s sports,” they said in a statement sent to Compass. 

“We acknowledge that the issue around the inclusion of trans women in sex-segregated sports is complicated and that our collective understanding of gender-affirming hormone therapies and other medical interventions is evolving, but vile rhetoric such as the type employed by IWF … does not move any conversation forward,” Camp and VanNess said.

The issue picked up steam in the cycling community this spring with transgender rider Austin Killips’ victory in the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. Killips, 27, became the first openly transgender cyclist to win an official UCI women’s stage race.

Killips, who finished eighth in a pack of riders 1:36 off the winner’s time in last year’s Pro Road National Championships in Knoxville, is registered to ride in this year’s road race on Sunday, USA Cycling confirmed. 

“Allowing male athletes like Austin Killips to compete in the women’s category is an infringement on female cyclists,” Gaines said.

Camp and VanNess called it an attempt to demonize Killips and other trans athletes and said it “reinforces harmful male supremacist ideology, and it diminishes the hard work that all of these athletes put into their sport.”  

Through Knox County Communications Director Mike Donila, Jacobs confirmed that he would speak at the event and would attend to support Gaines, who is a Gallatin native. “That’s about all he’s going to say right now,” Donila said.

Gaines has testified in Congress and lobbied for passage of the 2022 Tennessee law that provides for penalties against schools that allow transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports.

Knox Pride is asking that IWF rescind its invitation to Jacobs. “We encourage IWF to reconsider their invitation to Mayor Jacobs as he has shown time and again that he is only looking to score political points with his base without any regard for those he harms along the way, especially trans people and cisgender women,” Camp and VanNess said.

USA Cycling has adopted a tiered approach to the issue in an effort to ensure safe, fair and inclusive competition, USA Cycling spokesperson Tom Mahoney said via email.

“This policy addresses racing participation for transgender athletes, allowing for riders at the grassroots level to participate in the gender they identify with, while following guidance from the Union Cycliste Internationale and the International Olympic Committee on participation at the national and international level,” he said.

The UCI and USA Cycling require that transgender female athletes must maintain a total testosterone level below 2.5 nanomoles per liter for a period of at least 24 months.

While testosterone levels vary, biological women tend to range from 0.3 to 2.4 nanomoles per liter, putting the UCI limit at the top end of the scale. Biological males generally have exponentially higher testosterone levels, however, ranging from 9.2 to 31.8 nanomoles per liter.

After initially defending its policy following Killips’ Tour of the Gila victory, the UCI announced it would revisit its transgender policy amid criticism from women cyclists and others.

Dahron Johnson, who tracks and lobbies transgender legislation for the Tennessee Equality Project, is also a transgender cyclist certified by USA Cycling.

Johnson, 53, said the certification process involves the submission of letters from a psychologist and a medical doctor, and a nearly constant monitoring of testosterone levels. The drug regimen includes estrogen and androgen blockers to lower testosterone.

“I’ve been racing since my early 20s,” she said, long before she went through gender-affirming treatment. “That absence of testosterone had an impact on my performance at a certain level, but also on my ability to recover.” She added, “Hormones are powerful stuff.”

According to Johnson, transgender female athletes don’t have an inherent advantage over cisgender riders. “I race, too,” she said. “I suck. I haven’t won anything in a long time.”

Johnson said the rhetoric of the rally organizers is designed to demonize transgender people.

“They are red herring arguments that have more to do with political concerns than about athletes,” she said, adding that the rhetoric consists of “trans monster nonsense that’s meant to keep us out of the public sphere.”

Founded in 1992 by conservative women who supported Clarence Thomas’ controversial nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Independent Women’s Forum promotes “equity feminism,” which calls for equality between the sexes but doesn’t adhere to the view that women have to overcome male-dominated systems. Its donors have included conservative benefactors such as the Charles Koch Institute, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Scaife Foundations.

The selection of Pat Summitt Plaza for the rally was no accident. Rally organizers are promoting the event as a celebration of Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sex and is credited for the tremendous expansion of opportunities for women in sports over the past 50 years. Summitt, the late legendary UT women’s basketball coach, is considered a champion for Title IX.