New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender women’s Olympian on Monday to compete based on gender identity, but the key may be “openly.”
Canadian archer Stephanie Barrett, who finished her events last week, finds herself at the center of a fracas over whether a transgender athlete’s privacy rights outweigh the public’s right to know that a female competitor was born male — and how many such athletes may be flying under the radar in Tokyo.
Since launching her archery career in 2016, the 42-year-old Barrett has said nothing publicly about her gender, but after a glowing July 5 article in the Toronto Sun about her meteoric rise, the Glinner Update on Substack posted her tweet about undergoing HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and SRS [sex-reassignment surgery].
“Four years ago today I began my HRT; less than 3 months to go until my SRS. Wow!” Barrett said in a tweet March 18, 2012, followed by posts about going to the hospital and recovering from surgery.
Barrett, who finished out of the medal standings, has not commented publicly on the July 7 report, nor has she reacted to being identified as transgender on multiple news and advocacy websites, including the Economist, Germany’s DW [Deutsche Welle], RT [Russia Today], Boston University Today, Crikey, Binary, The [U.K.] Critic, and Fair Play for Women.
The Washington Times has reached out to Barrett for comment and reviewed the tweets on her 10-year-old Twitter account, which is unverified but contains hundreds of posts, including personal photos and video.
Either Barrett is the victim of an enormous misunderstanding, and has chosen for reasons of her own not to clear it up, or she offers startling evidence that an elite transgender athlete can avoid for years detection on the international stage, aided by sports organizations committed to protecting privacy.
Linda Blade, a former Canadian track champion and author of “Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial Are Destroying Sport” (2021), said that an athlete’s transgender status should be publicly available, given its implications for competitors as well as the fraught global debate over integrity in female sports.
“We are very aware of Stephanie. And the world DOES deserve to know this is a male born athlete,” Blade said in an email. “The responsibility lies directly on the shoulders of the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and Archery Canada for allowing this.”
Two years after picking up a bow at age 37, Barrett came out of nowhere to win gold at the 2018 Canadian Field and Target Championships. This year, she took silver at the 2021 Pan Am Archery Championships in Mexico, and tied the Canadian women’s record at the World Cup.
“There’s a lot of factors. I had some really great coaches in a very short amount of time. I was able to dedicate so much time to it,” Barrett told the Star in an article headlined, “Olympic archer Stephanie Barrett is pulling the strings on a real-life fantasy story.”
She wrapped up her Tokyo Olympics events last week, placing 33rd in the women’s individual and 17th in the mixed team competition.
The coverage spurred a backlash on social media from those arguing that Barrett‘s gender status should be part of the story.
“2021’s prize for disingenuousness goes to this person for writing an article on how amazing it is that Stephanie Barrett is competing in the Olympics almost immediately after taking up archery, without mentioning that Barrett is competing in the female division as a male,” tweeted British feminist Emma Pasternack.
Save Women’s Sports Australasia tweeted: “Could Stephanie‘s meteoric rise in women’s archery from novice to Olympian in a matter of a few short years possibly be due to male performance advantage?”
Archery Canada did not respond to a request for comment. But in 2018, the organization released a Trans Inclusion Policy that places a premium on guarding the “privacy and confidentiality of any staff or member who is trans.”
“We will only ask for information about gender from our staff and members when it is critical to the services or programs, in a manner that is inclusive, and for which there are no consequences for abstaining,” said the policy statement. “We will respect and safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of any staff or member who is trans, recognizing that failing to do so may place that individual at risk.”
Fair Play for Women chided Canada for its lack of transparency on transgender athletes, pointing out that such policies also make it impossible to determine the extent of their participation in women’s sports.
“Despite Canada’s pride in its ‘progressive’ credentials, its national team information makes no mention of archer Stephanie Barrett‘s transgender status,” said the group in a Wednesday post. “We simply don’t know how many athletes in women’s events might have been born male.”
Threat to women’s sports ‘overstated’
The prevalence issue has become increasingly germane to the debate over transgender athletes. A common rejoinder to those arguing that such competitors are destroying women’s sports is that their numbers are so few as to be insignificant.
Richard Budgett, IOC medical director, said Friday that the committee plans to release updated transgender guidelines in the next few months, but that he thought the issue had been blown out of proportion.
“If you are prepared to extrapolate from the evidence there is, and consider the fact there have been no openly transgender women at the top level until now, I think the threat to women’s sport has probably been overstated,” said Budgett at a press conference in Tokyo.
He added: “Everyone agrees transgender women are women, but it’s a matter of eligibility for sport and particular events.”
Others counter that such inclusion is not only unfair but growing. A list of “males who have competed in women’s sports” maintained by Save Women’s Sports puts the number at 71, not including Barrett or those who have kept their transitions quiet.
Hubbard, 43, who lost Monday after failing to complete any of her three lifts in the super-heavyweight category, has drawn the lion’s share of attention, but a handful of other Olympians have also come out as transgender and non-binary.
The only other known male-born athlete in the women’s category is U.S. cyclist Chelsea Wolfe, who qualified as a reserve in BMX freestyle and did not compete. Veteran Canadian women’s soccer player Quinn announced being transgender and non-binary last year and continues to play on the women’s team.
There may be others. The Associated Press reported last week from Tokyo without mentioning Barrett that some transgender Olympians are staying out of the limelight.
“The International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to participate at the Olympics since 2004, but until this year, none had done so openly,” said the AP. “In addition to Quinn, Hubbard and Wolfe, some transgender athletes are competing without discussing their transition. Some have been outed and harassed online by people who oppose transgender athletes competing.”
Women’s sports advocates argue that they have no problem with female-born transgender players going up against men, or male-born players in men’s sports — just male-born transgender athletes entering the women’s arena.
“We can all agree to not bully such a person. But that doesn’t mean we have no sex-based boundaries in society,” said Blade. “To allow male bodies into the female sports is not safe and not fair. That’s what we are saying.”
So far LGBTQ publications like SB Nation’s OutSports have made no mention of Barrett in their Olympics coverage, nor have advocacy groups like Athlete Ally celebrating the record number of gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender athletes in this year’s Olympics and Paralympics.
“We would consider someone openly transgender if they have come out publicly in the media, or they are clearly out on their public-facing social media,” said Athlete Ally spokesperson Joanna Hoffman in an email.
Barrett‘s Wikipedia page was the subject of a weeks-long debate last month over whether it should be deleted. The website decided Saturday to retain the page without any reference to her gender status.
Critics argue that Barrett essentially outed herself in her 2012 tweets and that disclosing the gender status of transgender athletes cannot be compared to outing gay and lesbian competitors, whose sexuality has no bearing on their athletic performance or integrity in women’s sports.
“It is not the same, in my opinion,” said Save Women’s Sports founder Beth Stelzer. “Sexual orientation can change and does not affect sports performance, while biology is an immutable fact with potentially devastating advantages in sports. I believe all athletes should have to be clear about their biological status.”
The IOC‘s 2015 guidelines on transgender inclusion in women’s sports call for athletes to keep their testosterone levels below a certain limit as well as declare “that their gender identity is female,” a declaration that “cannot be changed, for sports purposes, for a minimum of four years.”
Not addressed in the guidelines was whether such a declaration may remain private or must be made publicly, but changes to the policy are coming.
In June, the IOC announced it was working on “a new framework to ensure fairness, safety and non-discrimination of athletes on the basis of gender identity and sex characteristics.”
“To that effect, the IOC has run a consultation process to consider not only medical, scientific and legal perspectives, but also that of human rights, with an emphasis on the views and experiences of affected athletes,” said the organization.
Without transparency, however, the extent of transgender participation in the female category may remain dependent on the willingness of individual athletes to self-report.
“If we hold only the trans athlete responsible we get nowhere,” said Blade. “Shame on the sports associations for ruining women’s sports by allowing this madness to happen.”