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It’s no secret that the two-gender system in athletics has been a hot conversation topic as of late. Governing organizations in athletics create policies and test for illegal activities to hold people accountable for their actions. In our progressive society where gender identity continues to evolve and become more visible, many organizations and activities have been encouraged to evaluate and modify their policies.

These changes can create increased opportunities for people who may have been uncomfortable participating in sports previously because of their gender identity.

Many ruling bodies in sports disqualify participants who use testosterone or other androgens commonly used during gender transition or for treatment of a variety of medical conditions, including those living with HIV. Their concerns relate to unfair advantages potentially gained by increased muscle mass as well as other considerations from these “performance enhancing” drugs. They identify the importance of “fair play” along with their policy of inclusion; however, they effectively make the environment either inappropriate or uncomfortable for those athletes who benefit from these particular medical interventions.

The debate between medically enhanced therapy to support people’s health versus artificial enhancements to help people win contests continues today. For both long-term, HIV-positive survivors and transgender athletes, hormone replacement therapy, including the use of human growth hormone, can not only improve the quality of life and happiness for the individual but can also have a significant, positive impact on overall health and length of life.

These drugs are often associated with illegal activities among athletes due to their potential for performance-enhancing effects if taken in higher doses than therapeutically recommended. Unfortunately, those who are prescribed these types of medications are also often rejected when seeking to participate in athletic events.

Creating opportunities to include athletes across the gender spectrum has caused challenges and been the fodder for debate within leadership for a variety of sports. The LGBT Powerlifting Union was the first organization to adopt an evolutionary stance on including participation of those who may not follow the binary gender system or may rely on medications that are generally considered illegal in many sports.

This union has been identified as one of the pioneers in LGBTQ inclusion within athletes with their efforts to create additional opportunities in the sport of powerlifting for people across the queer spectrum. They set themselves apart from other governing organizations in a few ways.

Focus is placed on developing guidelines to encourage the inclusion of the wide variety of gender expressions in the LGBTQ community and those individuals who may have been unable to compete previously due to utilizing potentially performance-enhancing drugs for gender modification purposes or treating chronic conditions like HIV.

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There is little consensus about the most effective or fair ways to deal with these challenges. Many athletic organizations are faced with scrutiny regarding their policies to be responsive how their policies address changing needs of athletes wishing to compete. Unfortunately, change often happens slowly.

For example, USA Powerlifting describe themselves as an “inclusive organization for all athletes and members who comply with its rules, policies, procedures, and bylaws.” They later go on to acknowledge that they are “not a fit for every athlete and for every medical condition or situation.” This statement refers to eligibility requirements that impact the participation of transgender individuals and other athletes in events sanctioned by USA Powerlifting.

This is where innovative organizations like the LGBT Powerlifting Union come into play. Now based in Blackpool, England, this global union formed an advisory and advocacy group to support the evolution of contest regulations. The aim is to allow for inclusion of transgender athletes in powerlifting for both the LGBT International Powerlifting Championships in 2020 as well as the 2022 Gay Games in Hong Kong.

This combination of athletes, coaches, and event producers holds ongoing stakeholder meetings and shares perspectives on how best to conceptualize and provide a safe, supportive space for LGBTQ athletes to share their passion, strength, and courage to embrace their full selves without concern of judgment or dismissal. Last year, they welcomed more than 50 competitors from countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Australia, France, Iceland, Belgium, Ireland, Germany, and Romania to compete in the international contest.

These new policies focus on ensuring that competitions remain fair but also provide opportunities to be inclusive of those interested in participating. Other sports appear to also struggle with evolving their policies and practices to be additionally supportive. Although far from perfect, the union’s effort is a crucial step in the evolution of inclusivity and to keep these important conversations going.

Beyond the athletic aspects of this group, it is also about creating opportunities for inclusion, visibility, friends, and to boost self-esteem regardless of an individual’s sexuality or gender.

They also take a progressive stance regarding gender expression. In addition to the two common classifications of competitors being male (M) and female (F), they are proud to be the first sporting event in the world to introduce a third gender category designated as “MX” that was created to support the inclusion and participation of those identifying as gender-fluid, intersex, or nonbinary. They also identify the importance of offering opportunities to anyone regardless of their gender, orientation, size, age, or health status to compete against their peers in a safe environment without fear of discrimination.

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Ben Gilliam is Colorado’s most notable, out, gay powerlifter and a member of Team USA in the LGBT Powerlifting Union. In addition to his many successes in commercial real estate and championing social justice causes, Gilliam also describes some of his proudest achievements related to his history in athletics. He won LGBT International Powerlifting competitions in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and describes his involvement in the sport as a “metaphor for life, in terms of seeking growth and strength to become a better human who could help others discover their strength and channel it for a good purpose.”

In addition to the physical increases, he also gained emotional, psychological, and social benefits. Through training and competing in the “straight” world, he was fortunate to make friends who also became his allies when we came out as gay in a time and environment when and where being openly gay was less common, and fear of discrimination kept many LGBTQ athletes in the closet.

Of course, there is still a long way to go regarding equality in gender representation in many arenas including sports, but it is encouraging that certain organizations such as the LGBT Powerlifting Union are pushing those boundaries. It is through these changes that all individuals have opportunities to seek personal growth and strength through being themselves.