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Portland racers grapple with transgender participation debate


The global debate over the presence of transgender athletes in competitive sports has hit our local racing scene.

“I believe that transgender people should participate at OBRA events in the gender category in which they feel most closely aligns with their gender identity and athletic ability.”
— Steven Beardsley, OBRA Board member

When transgender athlete Rachel McKinnon defended her track World Championship victory last month, it sparked a wide-ranging debate about gender, fairness and tolerance in sports. The headline, “Male athletes are taking over women’s cycling,” on SaveWomensSports.com stated, “This is the beginning of the end for women’s sports. We cannot allow this abuse of female athletes and mockery of women’s sports to continue. It is not bigotry to defend biology, and it is not hate speech to defend your rights.”

Oregon Bicycle Racing Association board member Inga Thompson was interviewed and featured in that article. Thompson’s work to create a separate category for transgender athletes — something many feel is based in transphobia — and her association with Save Women’s Sports caught the attention of OBRA members.

Thompson’s views and advocacy prompted local bike shop owner Rachel Cameron to launch a petition last week that call for her to be removed from the board.

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As those petitions swirled around, OBRA Executive Director Chuck Kenlan addressed the controversy in an email to members on October 31st. “Although our staff and board members may have personal views that aren’t shared by everyone who is a member of OBRA, we are committed to always upholding and defending the mission, vision and current rules of the organization, including our Transgender Policy (attached) and Code of Conduct. We pledge to continue to work and grow as an organization in addressing issues that affect our underrepresented members, including transgender and non-binary racers, and how our staff and board interact around these issues.”

“We are doing what we can to include everyone who does not benefit from cis-male privilege, and we are all better because of inclusion.”
— Clint Culpepper, Portland Trophy Cup

Then earlier this week someone posted the text of a fake satirical anti-transgender news story on the OBRA Chat list. The posting sparked a heated debate with dozens of messages. The thread became so hurtful and negative that OBRA leaders took the rare step of deleting it and they’ve banned the original poster from using the list.

On Monday, Kenlan published another message to OBRA members saying he was “deeply troubled” to read the anti-transgender post. “His attempt at humor was offensive, bigoted and has no place within the organization or even on our fringes… OBRA Chat can be a powerful forum to share thoughts and ideas. I would hope that everyone that participates in the group does their best to be respectful and refrains from name-calling and hateful remarks.” Kenlan also pointed members to OBRA’s existing, detailed transgender policy (PDF) that says racers are allowed to self-select their own gender.

Yesterday, OBRA Board Member Steven Beardsley posted to the chat list that he felt messages shared by some members about transgender athletes was, “revolting and offensive”. “I believe that transgender people should participate at OBRA events in the gender category in which they feel most closely aligns with their gender identity and athletic ability,” he wrote. “I believe that our community is currently too homogeneous. Our organization needs to be doing a better job at providing opportunities for marginalized and underrepresented communities to enjoy the sport of cycling.”

Despite transphobic outbursts from some OBRA members this week, there are other many signs that the racing scene in the Portland region embraces people who don’t identify with the gender of their birth. Portland Trophy Cup owner Clint Culpepper explicitly makes all “Women” race categories open to, “all cis-women, trans-women, and non-binary racers.”

“We are doing what we can to include everyone who does not benefit from cis-male privilege,” Culpepper’s website states, “and we are all better because of inclusion.”

UPDATE, 12/9: The OBRA Board of Directors has decided to retain Inga Thompson. “The board found that this proposal [to create a separate category for transgender athletes] does not pose a conflict of interest with the organization’s rules, mission or statement of diversity,” they wrote in an email today. Here’s more from their decision:

The board recognizes how some of Inga’s actions and communications around this issue could be seen as problematic and hurtful to some in our community. We will be working, as a group, to better educate ourselves around these issues, including participating in SafeSport training, leadership education, and diversity, equity and inclusion training.

The board feels that Inga’s experience as a pioneer in women’s cycling, including her personal experience of discrimination in sport, is an asset to the board. The board decided to not remove Inga from the Board of Directors.

We did not take this discussion or decision lightly. Internally the board had varied personal opinions around this, and the conversation highlighted our differences. Our board, like our membership, has a wide range of experiences, opinions, and alliances. We feel that these were heard and taken into consideration while making these decisions.

CORRECTION: This story initially stated that Inga Thompson authored the article on Save Women’s Sports. That was incorrect. She was only interviewed for the article. I regret the error.

UPDATE, 12/10/19: The OBRA Board of Directors has decided to keep Inga Thompson on their board. Read more here.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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