Its @6pm on a warm Thursday evening and Christine Penn is astride her bicycle and checking her time from her latest criterium ride at the Rodale track in Trexlertown. Looking tired, but proud in her racing kit she says, “It was faster than last week, but I know I can do better.” At 52 years of age, Christine has been actively engaged in cycling for over 9 years – the last three as the woman she always knew herself to be.
Transgender Athletes Under Attack
Transgender athletes like Christine have been in the news – and under attack - a lot over the past few months.
Most notably among these was a recent op-ed written in the Sunday Times of London by tennis great and out lesbian Martina Navratilova. “A man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires,” she wrote, “It’s insane and it’s cheating.”
Of course, there has never been a case of a cisgender man choosing to go through a long and arduous gender transition to compete and win against women. There are rigorous regulations from sporting bodies including the NCAA, US Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee and professional organizations that ensure that competition is fair - and while there are transgender athletes such as Chris Mosier or Rachel McKinnon competing at the national or international level, they are few and far between. Most trans athletes are like Christine.
They compete because they like being physically fit, the challenge of improving their times, and because they enjoy the company of their teammates. Most critically, they are willing to adhere to strict guidelines and timelines to do so.
In Christine’s case, she complies with the policies of USA Cycling (USAC). Those regulations required her to be legally transitioned and living full-time in her true gender for over a year. They also stipulated that she wasn’t allowed to compete in any races in her preferred gender until she had been on a hormone replacement regimen and was able to prove that her testosterone levels were below the 10 nmol/l limit for over one year (note: typically Christine has tested below 2nmol/l). Even though her levels are much lower than that of natal women, she continues to have her bloodwork tested, because she must be able to prove that she is in compliance if her eligibility is ever challenged.
Sport Is About More Than Competition
After quitting smoking and putting on some middle-aged weight; Christine initially took up riding to get healthier. Cycling also provided a way to gain some solitude as she considered her impending gender transition. Riding the D&L trail through the Lehigh Gorge is still a favorite pastime. “I like exploring and seeing beautiful areas…and there are wonderful trails in to explore in Pennsylvania.”
Christine also admits to being something of a speed freak and that is where her membership in three bicycling clubs comes in. “I like going fast so that is why I belong to the Lehigh Valley Wheelman Association, Sturdy Girl Cycling and the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team (TNWCTeam).” She also serves on the board of the latter and has raced with them as far away as Tucson, Arizona where she competes in the “El Tour de Tucson” each year. Locally, she races for Sturdy Girl Cycling.
“It was the TNWCTeam that really helped me during my transition,” said Christine. “It opened up a world to me where I could talk to others about the loss of muscle, the loss of pulmonary capability and other physical effects I was experiencing as a result of my hormone replacement therapy.”
When asked about obstacles she has encountered as a transgender athlete she makes it clear that while she supports the rules imposed by the various governing bodies of her sport, complying with them is a challenge. “My healthcare providers kept on canceling the Testosterone tests which I needed to prove I was in compliance.” This resulted in her eligibility for competition being delayed by an additional six months.
She also says that the cycling community reflects society in general. She spends a lot of time educating other competitors, administrators and spectators on transgender issues and the rules for her eligibility. Additionally, she has occasionally been harassed by transphobic spectators while riding. But “the cycling community is generally very tolerant and open,” she says.
Advice to Compete and Live By
To the general public her advice is, “Don’t believe the stories about how trans women dominate in sport…because it just is not true.” In fact, like most transgender athletes, Christine usually finishes in the middle of the pack when racing. “We are at and across all levels of the sport; which is sort of where you would expect any group of individuals to be.”
When asked what advice she has for aspiring trans athletes Christine offers the following: “Don’t let being transgender stop you from attaining your athletic ambitions. Most organizations have rules that support trans people. Investigate them, follow them, and fight for your right to compete! Be the inspiration that others need to see.”
“There are lots of people that are faster than me,” she says, “but I also love the challenge. I am pretty slow compared to many riders, but they inspire me to come back and fight to do better next time.”
That advice about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and coming back to fight again serves as the perfect allegory for what transgender people do every day. Athlete or not, we are racing for the finish line and we are doing so with pride.
Learn More About the Lehigh Valley Transgender Community
Would you like to write for our transgender blog or learn more about our meet-ups for transgender people in the Lehigh Valley and eastern Pennsylvania? If so, please contact Lehigh Valley Renaissance or better yet join us at one of our monthly meeting!
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by Lehigh Valley Renaissance.