Rainbow-striped armour: The ups and downs of winning Worlds as a trans woman

by Dr Rachel McKinnon


“Come on,” I say to myself out loud. I don’t know whether my opponent, who is ahead of me, has heard.

I don’t feel tired. I’m pedalling as hard as I possibly can. We round the final turn; we’re nearly horizontal on the 45-degree banking, at 60 kilometres per hour (nearly 40 mph). We’re on the two-story Siberian pine Los Angeles velodrome. It’s an indoor cycling track built for one thing: speed.

A world championship title is only 50 metres away, if I can just pass her. I’ve been stalking Carolien van Herrikhuyzen for the last two laps, after she attacked a long way from the line. I’ve practised this repeatedly over the last 15 months of training, these three minutes. Travelling to training camps, working with two full-time coaches, consulting with other coaches, 15-20 hours of training per week, training twice most days. But there’s only a few seconds left.

“Come on.”

My front wheel pulls alongside the Dutch rider’s front wheel. I’m starting to pass her. I see the line. With 15 meters to go, I know that I’m going faster. As I pass her I know I’ve won.

World champion.

Enjoying the moment and the rainbow stripes after winning the 35-44 sprint event. Photo supplied by Mike Gladu Photography.

That was October 13, the gold medal ride of the women’s age 35-44 sprint event at the 2018 UCI Masters Track World Championships. That day I pulled on the rainbow stripes was a Saturday, but the day before was when my world started to change, slowly, then in an explosion. In the 200m qualifying, I broke the current women’s 35-39 world record.

It wasn’t a great time for me, to be honest. I’d gone considerably faster in June outdoors. You’re supposed to go faster indoors, but this was the first timed 200 on an indoor track. The technique is slightly different owing to the wood being less grippy than the concrete tracks I’m used to (I train out of Rock Hill, South Carolina, but I live in Charleston).

Before every UCI event, we have to take our bikes to a rig and have it pass “bike check.” When you set a world’s best time, the UCI immediately takes your bike back and performs a second bike check, and takes a picture of the bike on the rig to ratify the record. While this was happening, and I was sitting nearby enjoying the moment, Missy Erickson came over. She had done my bike fit in June just ahead of the Trexlertown (TTown) UCI track races. She wanted a picture for Instagram.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bo2I7UtBgd1

While we were taking the picture, Sarah Fader beat my time, setting a new world’s best time.

But for those brief 10 minutes, I held the world record. (I’m planning on getting it back in Manchester at the 2019 world championships.)

What’s really going on?

After that brief world record my Instagram and Twitter started to flare up, more than usual. I have someone who monitors my Twitter for me, primarily to mute transphobes. But I usually get a small trickle, at most, in my Instagram. That changed on that Friday morning.

I had to reach out and have someone else monitor my Instagram (thanks Kevin!). Just now, looking for the post about my world record, it seems that ERO had to delete their original post because, I’m sure, they were receiving an utter torrent of abuse about me. It’s not enough that these people harass me: they harass anyone who has supported me in any capacity.

With qualifying done, I settled into relaxing before the quarter final round. I’d qualified second, so I would be racing the seventh fastest qualifier. Except … what? I was seeded first? What happened to Fader? I approached an official to find out — she had withdrawn. Was she okay? The official didn’t have an answer: all she knew was that Fader withdrew from the sprint event.

I saw she was still in the venue; she was walking fine and didn’t seem hurt. She didn’t seem like she had anywhere she had to rush off to.

My gut told me that something suspicious was going on. I suspected that she withdrew in protest over my being trans. Some people who know her said that they didn’t think she’d do something like that. However, a few weeks later my suspicions were confirmed. Comments were published in an article which said she withdrew because she thought the rules that allowed me to compete with women were unfair. She claimed it was unfair for me to compete with women, even though I clearly satisfy the UCI policy for trans women.

It’s a little weird. I try to be charitable before attributing negative motivations for behaviors like this. On Wednesday, Sarah won the 500m TT event. I came fourth. Sure, I set the 200m world record, but Fader beat me a few heats later. She’s beaten me in both of the events that week, and the only two times we’ve ever raced each other. How do you beat someone in both events and claim that it’s unfair they’re competing?

Trans women are not men

A friend of mine, Dr. Aryn Conrad, who works with me on the topic of trans athlete law and ethics, put it succinctly the other day: the entire ‘debate’ over whether it’s fair for trans women to compete with (cisgender) women boils down to a very simple question: Do you, deep down, believe that trans women are real women, or not?

If you do think that trans women are real women, then arguments that depend on statistics like, ‘Men are, on average, stronger than women’ are irrelevant. Trans women are not men: we’re women.

You might think: but you were ‘born a man.’ I’ve yet to meet a woman who gave birth to a fully grown man: people tend to be born as babies. But what does one’s gendered history matter to who they are now? If you say that you believe that trans women are real women, then claims about ‘male’ advantage over ‘females’ should be irrelevant.

I can tell some of you reading this are already angry. Yes, I have much more complicated arguments about this.

There’s a human rights argument, primarily. There’s the way that Olympic-eligible sports, like cycling, must adhere to the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter, which contains seven Fundamental Principles of Olympism. The fourth principle begins, “The practice of sport is a human right.” They mean competitive sport. Also, the structure of Olympic-eligible sport is into ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and one’s sex is whatever one’s legally recognised sex is.

Trans women are legally recognised as women/female in many countries, including Canada (my home country) the USA, UK, Australia, and many others. Every piece of identification I have  — Canadian and American — says ‘F’ on it. Since I’m legally recognised as female, I must compete in the women’s category.

Of course, those who oppose trans women’s full inclusion in women’s sport don’t, deep down, think that trans women are really female. I’m not sure there’s anything I can say to convince them of that.

An explosion of attention

But let’s get back to the Saturday. I win my morning semi-final in two rides, racing against someone I consider a friend. I’m into the final that afternoon. I’ve written and spoken a bunch about what it was like in the final, especially racing against someone who explicitly supports trans women athletes.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BqUpF01lmhL/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

I want to focus here on what happened after.

I’ve never been as proud to be Canadian as I was gazing upon our flag and listening to our anthem on the podium. I let myself enjoy those moments. I gave no attention to what would follow. That was the time to enjoy being a world champion. Seriously. I’m a world champion! What?! We did it!

No one will ever take that away from me. The rainbow stripes are forever. 

But the world moves on. Immediately after the podium, it’s straight to anti-doping to give a sample. This is never easy for me. It took over an hour in July in Seattle. It took about 90 minutes this time. It’s no fun ‘celebrating’ a monumental victory hanging out in a bathroom with anti-doping staff. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed our conversations, but I wanted to be celebrating with friends. It was getting late. I was tired.

All we could manage was a low-key dinner. Then I had to pack first thing in the morning and spend the full day flying home. I had one day to decompress, but then it was back into teaching. No time to celebrate. The torrent of interviews began that Wednesday. I was doing three to four per on the days I wasn’t teaching. It was exhausting.

It was an explosion of attention. I thought it was bad after setting the world record on Friday? I expected some negative reaction … but worldwide coverage? Every major outlet covered my win. I think the first outlet was the Daily Caller, an alt-right ‘news’ website. It was picked up on Breitbart and InfoWars, then eventually Fox. I was winning ‘alt-right transphobe’ bingo.

I will say, I think it’s a ‘level-up’ for an activist to have Alex Jones yell about you on his radio show. News outlets from across the political spectrum, all over the world, were talking about me. Me?

And an explosion of hate

The positive, supportive messages were drowned out by the tens of thousands of hateful messages. Maybe it’s hundreds of thousands. I don’t count. ‘Cheater!’ ‘You’re a man!’ Those were the ‘polite’ ones. It’s not like they’re original. I had to bring in more people to help with my Twitter. So many people were suddenly very interested in masters women’s track cycling! 

Except, of course, they’re not. This isn’t about masters women’s track cycling. It’s not even about women’s sport. These people have never done anything meaningful to support women’s sport, something they seem very invested in ‘protecting’ against the trans woman invasion. I get that they don’t like trans women. But it would be nice if they didn’t send me untold thousands of hate messages, a few death threats, and even some physical hate mail to my office. Maybe that’s too much to ask.

This is the very definition of transphobia — an irrational fear or opposition to trans women as real women. My world championship wasn’t the first for a trans woman. It won’t be the last, especially if I have anything to say about it — I plan to win again next year! But about that invasion of trans women ‘destroying’ or ‘taking over’ women’s sport? 

Trans women have been able to openly compete in Olympic-eligible sports, including the Olympics, since November 2003. A trans woman hasn’t won a single Olympic medal yet. There’s only a small handful of world championships won by trans women, including sports that aren’t in the Olympics. If the invasion were to happen, we’d have done it by now.

Trans women athletes have been around for much longer than 2003: I promise we’ve been trying our best! I’m not even sure whether a trans person has made it into the Olympics yet. As far as I know, the answer is still ‘no.’

My rainbow striped armour

The torrent of hate has died down to what seems like a steady stream — my new ‘normal.’ I’ve been surprised about one thing, though, and that’s my reaction to it. There’s something about winning a world championship that makes the hate not get to me in a way that it used to before. I like video games, so I favour the metaphor of ‘levelling up.’ I levelled up winning this title. I’m not sure what it is about the rainbow jersey that makes it act like armour. But it does.

There’s something about the jersey that lets me ignore the hateful messages. Those people can’t stand in the way of my dreams. I already accomplished a big one: a world championship. The rainbow stripes are forever.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BpZx_2bhHbS/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

But there’s also something petty about the hate. It’s irrational. And it would be irrational for me to waste my time thinking about it, worrying about it.

I’m still processing that people ‘fan girl’ over me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that. But I’m a role model now. There’s a lot of power in that, in knowing that people look up to you. That’s what gets me through the hard times. My heroes didn’t waste their time arguing with random people. I won’t either. 

I’ve levelled up. Now it’s onto the next quest.

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