With increasing cultural acceptance and awareness of transgender persons, there have been more conversations within the trail running community about how to categorize these athletes in competitive athletic events.
Over the past several years, international governing bodies and national federations have introduced policies regarding transgender athletes to attempt to clarify rules and regulations within events they oversee. Under the leadership of their Medical & Scientific Commission, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been working on guidelines since 2003 which were published in 2015. Following IOC’s lead, and focused on elite level athletes, USA Track & Field (USATF) published a policy for transgender/transsexual athletes in 2015. According to the policy, “…certain medical benchmarks [must] be achieved before an athlete may compete as the opposite gender for medals, prize money and other benefits.”
Operating under International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules, the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and International Trail Running Association (ITRA) follow IAAF’s policy for transmen and transwomen. Within off-road running disciplines outside the federation system however, there are few published policies leaving race directors to make their own rules for transgender athletes.
In response to the need for clarity, ATRA member Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (WSER), the oldest 100 mile trail race in the U.S., recently published a Transgender Entrant Policy which goes into effect at this years race.
According to the WSER board of directors their goal is “to establish rules to encourage and facilitate the participation of transgender runners at WSER with the goal of ensuring fair and inclusive practices that respect the personal rights and dignity of transgender entrants while preserving the integrity of competition for awards and records based on sex.”
I first learned about the announcement from the WSER Facebook post last month announcing the policy.
One comment that was particularly prominent was written by ultrarunner & triathlete Bo Aucoin, a transgender man, who was excited about the policy, but also very personally hurt by the comments that some people left on the thread. According to Bo, “Wow. I’m a runner. And I’m trans. I read this headline and it brought tears to my eyes. Then I made the mistake of reading the comments. Now I really have tears in my eyes.”
I reached out to Bo Aucoin and asked if we could talk more about the policy and discuss the online reaction to it. Here’s my conversation with Bo:
[PETER MAKSIMOW] Hello Bo, thanks for talking with us on what I realize is a daily part of life for you. Before we proceed, can you educate those who may not know much about the trans community (pronoun usage, description, etc.)?
[BO AUCOIN] Hey Peter! Thanks for reaching out and for talking to me. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity. I’ll do my best to educate, but truth is, this is all rather new to me as well. Though I’ve wrangled with gender my entire life, I didn’t truly understand why until recently. Even after beginning to make sense of my struggles, I resisted transition until it was, on multiple levels, the only option I had left. I just celebrated my 37th birthday and it’s been less than a year since I started publicly identifying as male and only four and a half months since I started Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Despite my biological age, I’m what the trans community would call a baby-trans. Suffice it to say, I’m no expert on the topic and definitely can’t claim to speak on behalf of the community.
But as for me, yes: I was assigned female at birth because I have female genitalia. I’ve tussled with my societal role as female and have suffered from anxiety and depression over the disparity between how I feel in my brain versus how I feel in my body. Nothing has felt more self-affirming than recognizing my true gender. Being early in my transition, however (and earlier still in my medical transition), I know that, outwardly, I still read as female to most. The best I can hope for right now is to be publicly perceived as androgynous, and so, I welcome they/them pronouns. Honestly though, for me, it’s more of a compromise than anything. Not to mention, it’s a grammatically puzzling concept for many. But I won’t get into that!
I know I’m a guy. I don’t know that I’ve ever known something so deeply. It’s terrifyingly liberating and painfully beautiful. When people support me in honoring who I am by using male pronouns [he/him/his], my psyche leaps like a puppy excited by the sound of his name. But if, after seeing a body that still fits best – when awkwardly shoved – in The Female Box, the best people can do is recognize that I’m not a binary cisgender woman and use gender neutral pronouns [they/them/theirs], that’s cool too. And people do mess-up (even those closest to me). And that’s okay. I appreciate the effort. Transitions don’t happen overnight: not for me, not for those in my life, and not for society.
[PRO TIP] What does transgender mean? Learn more.
[PETER] It appears you are a very competitive athlete based on your 2:59:47 for 5th place overall finish amongst women at the San Francisco Marathon and outright win, male or female, by almost 9 minutes at the San Francisco 50mi/50km Endurance Run 50 Miler in 8:29:48. How has competing as an athlete helped you?
[BO] Honestly, it seems like a lifetime ago. But, yes; before transition I was quite competitive both as a distance runner and as a triathlete. I was never a pro or an elite, but I held my own as an age-grouper. Athletics helped ease some of the dysphoria I felt over my body. As an athlete, I could get my body looking as masculine as possible without hormones or surgery. I didn’t fully understand why that made me feel less like crawling out of my skin every waking (and sometimes sleeping) moment, but I knew that it did. So, endurance sports became both a self-medication and an escape as well as being my primary meditation, inspiration, and connection to an awesome community of peers.
[PETER] There is a lot that you wrote on Facebook about how you just want to live your life and not get an advantage over anyone in sport. How does it feel to have one of your lifelong goal races, WSER, create a policy that will allow you to participate?
[BO] Being on testosterone, I find it nearly impossible to cry. That news, when it came across my Facebook feed, however, very nearly did the trick. I’ve waffled in the past months about whether or not to resurrect my inner competitive badass. I miss the whole tri and running scene but I also feel a lot of trepidation about my body and my future as an athlete. I don’t know what my body can do–how it will take to hormones, how hormones will affect me athletically, and how I will compete against cisgender men when my hormone levels are still (for the moment) much closer to female levels. But more importantly, I have anxiety about how I will be perceived by my fellow athletes. I don’t know that I will be accepted, and if so, how. I know there are many transgender athletes, including professional ones, like pro duathlete and triathlete, Chris Mosier who also weighed-in on the WSER’s Facebook announcement regarding the new transgender policy. These athletes inspire me and show me that it *is* possible to be both myself and to do the things I love to do, including pushing myself to compete as a runner and a triathlete. But still, there are many hurdles to overcome and WSER’s announcement meant to me: one less hurtle in my way. Really, the policy simply takes away a major obstacle that was once there (and in many situations is still there) for transgender individuals–an obstacle that was never there and will never be there for the cisgender population. From my perspective, the policy is not about making exclusive accommodations. It’s about granting inclusive accessibility.
[PETER] I assume, since this is such a personal subject and you mentioned it in your comment, but what would be the one thing that you would tell people or want people to know about you, in particular, as it pertains to trail running and racing. What about the trans community as a whole?
[BO] Wow. That’s a big question. I think, for me, if there’s one thing I hope people can take away from this discussion, it’s that, whether in the case of competitive sport or any other area of life, the debate around transgender and/or gender non-conforming or gender non-binary individuals is not simply a debate about politics, semantics, religious and/or traditional beliefs, nor even a debate about science and fairness. We are people. We’re real human beings. We are runners, cyclists, writers, artists, parents, lovers, children, siblings, and friends. Not all of us want to be activists. Few of us (that I’m aware of) take joy in the fact that our mere existence is an act of political defiance. For the most part, we just want to live our lives, be accepted, and belong to communities, same as anyone else.
People might have opinions about the trans community–opinions like, “It’s just a trend,” “They’re making it up,” “They’re delusional and should accept the body God/Nature gave them,” or, at very least, “It isn’t fair that they want to compete athletically as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.” But, ultimately, even if these opinions were true, it doesn’t change the fact that we exist. It doesn’t change the fact that, for many of us, the ability to exist as ourselves–as our true gender–is the only way we can exist. I, for one, tried all other alternatives to the best of my abilities for 36 years. There was nothing more I could do unless I acknowledged myself as trans. And it’s the hardest thing ever. If people’s beliefs around the transgender debate mean that they can’t or won’t or simply don’t “believe” me, and/or that they believe I’m “cheating” if I try to compete as a transgender athlete, those are their beliefs. I’m not likely going to change them. But their beliefs are not simply opinions to be flung about in a political sparring match. Their beliefs affect my ability to get up and go about my day as a fellow human being.
If there’s one thing I want people to know, it’s this:
Stating opinions is easy when you’re engaged in debates with random strangers on the internet. Talking about policies and politics and the ever-changing state of our progressive society with dinner guests whose life experiences are similar to yours is comfortable. But, what if you got to know someone who identifies as trans? What if you went for beer together, hit the trails for a run, or went for a Sunday ride? And then, what if, while sweating, side by side, pacing each other and swapping tips about which races have the best aid stations, what if then you looked that person in the eye and, in between swigs of electrolytes, friendly pats on the back, and labored breathing from your last interval, you told that person that your personal beliefs mean that they should not be allowed to participate in life in the same way you do–that they ought to be side-lined in the name of “fairness” … what if? My guess is that that wouldn’t be quite so easy. Regardless, stating opinions is a heck of a lot easier than living a life where those same opinions remind you every moment of every day that you are “different,” “othered,” and ultimately, not deserving of the same opportunities as the majority of the population. I don’t expect to change people’s minds, but I hope I can help people understand that while, for many, the transgender debate is about their opinions, for me, it’s about my life.
[PETER] One of the comments in the threat was very poignant and makes complete sense when one thinks rationally about it: “Many of you weren’t around in the 70s to have experienced the controversy over Renée Richards. She was criticized with the same sorts of criticism seen here, as if she was doing this to achieve an advantage (in tennis, in her case). The idea then, or even now, that someone would go through this traumatic life experience and equally traumatic (literally) medical procedure in order to achieve success in sports, was and is beyond preposterous.” You alluded to this in your comment, “I don’t want to be trans” and “before I finally accepted myself as trans, I didn’t want to exist at all.” Could you give us a sense of just how difficult a burden this has been on you?
[BO] Absolutely. I’ve said it numerous times to myself and to others, but I’ll say it again: If I could snap my fingers and be comfortable as a cisgender woman, I would do it in a heartbeat. That would be a much easier, and quite frankly, a much “better” life. Transitioning isn’t fun. It’s really freakin’ hard. And I know hard. I’m an ultramarathoner.
I did everything possible to try to make it work living the life I felt I “should” live. I married young, had kids, got a good education, had a successful career … I think, if I weren’t cursed with such excellent stamina, I might have hit the wall sooner. But, endurance junkie that I am, it took me 35 years before all my self-medicating and sheer grit and stubbornness was no longer enough to keep me going, and ultimately, brought me to the ground.
In 2016, after placing fifth in the San Francisco Marathon and competing in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Queensland, Australia, numerous stressors in my life combined forces with intense dysphoria, anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder. That December I was admitted to residential care. I had a heart rate of 32. I still remember arguing to the ER nurses that it was simply “because I’m an athlete” and that “I was fine.” Truth is, I’d lost my will to live. In the months that followed, as I sought recovery, I learned that I couldn’t go on living a life that wasn’t mine. No amount of determination could render that plan viable for one second longer. There remained one person left inside me that could be convinced that life was still worth living: a boy named Bo. I chose the name Bo (or it chose me?) because it means “to live.” Bo is who I am and he’s the identity I know I was meant to embody I as I move through this life. I don’t have to like it. I don’t even have to intellectually understand or believe it. It’s my reality and that’s all there is to it.
But I sure as heck wouldn’t choose this reality any more than I would choose to race in violent crosswinds and pounding rain. But, like any athlete, I’m committed to showing up. Whatever the conditions may be, I’m completing this race of life, and I’m completing it as me.
Do you direct a race, or know of a race, that has a policy on transgender athlete participation? Let us know about it.
Do you want to learn more about Bo? Read his cyber “coming out” story.
Ready for a deep dive into the science? Read “Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies” from the National Institutes of Health.
Transathlete has a helpful list of policies by international sports organizations.