Local advocates back Minnesota trans athlete

JayCee Cooper

Local trans advocates are speaking out for JayCee Cooper, a transgender powerlifter from Minnesota who recently filed suit against USA Powerlifting for allegedly refusing to allow her to compete with other female powerlifters.

The 26-page lawsuit was filed on behalf of Cooper by Gender Justice, a nonprofit legal and policy advocacy organization based in St. Paul that seeks to eradicate gender inequity.  It’s been assigned to Judge John H. Guthmann of Minnesota’s Second Judicial District. A jury trial has been requested.

Thomas W. Ude Jr., legal and public policy director for Mazzoni Center, expressed support for Cooper. “For many, participating in sports is a matter of self-fulfillment and community,” Ude told PGN. “Policies that categorically exclude transgender women rely on inaccurate stereotypes — ignoring medicine, science, and the fundamental reality that transgender women are women. Most national, international, and local sports organizations have figured this out already. And USA Powerlifting needs to catch up so that JayCee Cooper and women like her can compete against their female peers. When organizations exclude women because they are transgender, everyone loses out.”

Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, echoed Ude’s sentiments. “JayCee Cooper should not have been met with this form of discrimination — but with excitement for her and the trans community and the beauty of this sport,” Lassiter told PGN. “We should be embracing trans athletes and commending JayCee for all that hard work that goes into training and [for] remaining resilient in the face of these policies that are discriminatory. We should not allow anyone to politicize and demonize bodies. Rather, we must see the beauty in all.”

Celena Morrison, executive director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs, also expressed support for Cooper while not commenting on the specifics of her lawsuit. “It is disappointing to see individuals and organizations go out of their way to strip trans people of simple dignities — like the ability to participate in competitive sports,” Morrison said, in an email. “This is yet another example of continued discrimination and unnecessary cruelty towards trans folks. I wish JayCee luck with her case.”

Naiymah Sanchez, transgender justice coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, denounced anti-trans bias. “There is no place for discrimination against trans people, whether it’s in the workplace or schools or athletic competitions,” Sanchez told PGN. “We are tired of gender being seen as specific to genitalia or assignment at birth. Perhaps athletic authorities and associations need to broaden their knowledge of trans people, instead of discriminating against us.”

Deja Alvarez, a local trans advocate, renewed her call for federal LGBT protections. “I think what we are seeing now with trans athletes competing in professional arenas are the outdated and bigoted policies of our country as a whole — not just within sports,” Alvarez told PGN. “While I am excited to see so many trans people chasing their hopes and dreams, these situations also remind us of how far we have to go. If we are going to start respecting trans people’s rights, then we must do so in sports. It is past time for us to have federal laws and policies protecting LGB and T folks from bias and discrimination in any form. Until then, we will have to continue our individual fights in the court systems around the country.”

According to her Jan. 12 lawsuit, Cooper, 33, was denied the ability to compete in a USA Powerlifting event in 2019 in the women’s category. The organization allegedly violated Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of LGBT status.

Cooper is seeking more than $50,000 in damages and a court order requiring USA Powerlifting to end its exclusionary policies for trans athletes. Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued this statement on behalf of Cooper: “As JayCee said, sports belong to everyone. All should be welcome to participate and feel the belonging, discipline and pride that sports provides, and not be excluded or sidelined just for being who they are. Creating segregated categories [for trans athletes] is a tactic based in fear. It’s unfair, unnecessary and stigmatizes transgender people. GLAAD stands with all trans people and against policies and laws created with misinformation that lead to further attacks.”    

USA Powerlifting didn’t immediately return an email, seeking comment. On its website, USA Powerlifting states: “Men naturally have a larger bone structure, higher bone density, stronger connective tissue and higher muscle density than women. These traits, even with reduced levels of testosterone, do not go away. While [trans women] may be weaker [with] less muscle than they once were, the biological benefits given them at birth still remain over that of a female.”

Numerous athletes and sports-advocacy groups have declared support for Cooper. Joanna Hoffman, spokesperson for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ athletic advocacy organization based in New York, added her voice to the chorus. “JayCee’s fight for justice underscores the fact that trans athletes participate in sports for the same reason as their cisgender teammates, and deserve that same level of access and opportunity,” Hoffman said, in an email.

Justin F. Robinette, a local civil-rights attorney, said there’s no valid reason for USA Powerlifting to exclude Cooper. “Opponents of trans rights often say we can’t have men competing in women’s sports because they would have an unfair advantage,” Robinette told PGN. “There are safeguards in place to prevent the unfair advantage that USA Powerlifting claims. That’s not what’s happening here. We’re talking about a trans athlete who merely wishes to compete with other women. There’s no valid reason to prevent her from doing so.” 

Amy E. Whelan, senior staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said discrimination against Cooper harms all women.

“Trans people should have the same opportunity to participate in organized sports as others,” Whelan told PGN. “JayCee Cooper has worked hard to be successful, and she deserves the same respect and support as any other female athlete. Policies that exclude some women from participation based on outmoded stereotypes and misinformation harm all women. Trans women should not be punished for training hard and doing well in competition. So long as a trans athlete is complying with the same rules and requirements that apply to everyone else, she should not be excluded simply for being transgender.”

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.