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Guest column: 2 transgender bowlers on USBC's changing rules for transgender bowlers

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Monday, August 8, 2022 9:00 am
Guest column: 2 transgender bowlers on USBC's changing rules for transgender bowlers
Kimberly Power-DeFer. Contributed photo.

Note: When Kimberly Power-DeFer contacted me about USBC’s changing rules for transgender bowlers I knew nothing of the topic. In order to do a comprehensive news story, it would have required many hours of work — hours that I don’t have to spare for a very niche topic. (I have numerous high interest feature stories that I haven't gotten to in this incredibly newsy year. I aim to tackle some this fall.) And because USBC has refused to engage with me as a journalist since I wrote about (and in support of) their suspension of Webber International in February 2018, it would have been impossible to get explanations for the changes they implemented. So I asked Power-DeFer if she wanted to write a column in the context of being someone impacted by the changes. She brought in Mozelle Rubio, who also is impacted by the changes. The column also has several attachments of information on the topic. If anyone from USBC wishes to write a response, I would be happy to publish it.

I am Kimberly Power-DeFer a trans woman who has competed at the highest levels of the sport of bowling with some success. I was asked to write this article as I have direct knowledge of the subject matter and am directly affected by changes to these rules.

In recent years, there have been substantial changes in the rules pertaining to transgender athletes in all sports. Some changes have been driven by the International Olympic Committee setting new rules and guidelines which tend to filter down to the various sports, while others are driven by the controversy over transgender athletes having a perceived advantage some claim will destroy the sport in question.

The IOC has regulated performance enhancing drugs for decades, including steroids and drugs used to cover up their use. This led to the first version of the rules where they set a regulation on the maximum amount of testosterone in the blood to 10 nmol/L in 2015. Prior to 2015, IOC rules required genital surgery to be allowed to compete even though it has no bearing on competitiveness.

Guardian: IOC Rules transgender athletes can take part in Olympics without surgery

Since the 2015 rules were instituted, there has been international consensus that it is impossible to set hard lines to govern all sports. Thus, the new rules are guidelines on what rules are permissible with a set of rules on what the goal of those rules should be. That said, it is fairly universal that many sports still maintain the 10 nmol/L rule for testosterone. The only other common rule is a requirement for the athlete to declare what gender they will compete as for a specific period. This is ridiculous because no one is going to swap genders on a whim. The process is much too involved for that.

USBC recently issued new rules for competition by transgender athletes. Trans men are only allowed to compete in the Open division if they have already started taking testosterone. The new rules maintain the previous rule of 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to competition to participate in women’s events. They also require the declaration of gender.

The new addition is the requirement to get medical professionals to declare the athlete has no inherent advantage and have video and data collected of the athlete bowling. This video and data are intended to be used to assess whether there is a “biomechanical” advantage. There is no documentation of what standards they will be using, or who will be making the judgements. The assertion that they aim to be inclusive is hard to accept when you have no idea what the parameters are.

(The accompanying PDF “USBC updates related to inclusion and non-discrimination on basis of gender” states that “training data shows an elite male athlete can have a rev rate of 400-514 (RPM), while USBC has not measured a female athlete with rev rate above 378 (RPM). A transgender applicant with a rev rate exceeding a reasonable range of elite female competition may not be accepted.” But that is not stated in the actual PDF of the rules they published. If they want that or something similar to be the standard, they need to list it, and back it up scientifically. Otherwise they can just do what they want when they don’t deem someone acceptable.)

The other aspect that makes this ridiculous is that as far as I can tell bowling is the only sport with such a requirement. Tennis, soccer, and golf all only require the assertion and the testosterone limit. There is no doubt that physical strength matters more in all those sports than in bowling, so why is bowling the most stringent? A bowler needs to take time (and money if they want CATS or Specto data) to provide video and data not required in other sports more influenced by physical attributes. The only sport with a more stringent rule is FINA (the international federation recognized by the IOC for administering international competitions in water sports) and swimming where Lia Thomas became a controversial figure earlier this year. FINA now will only allow trans women who never went through male puberty to compete.

ESPN: Trans women competing in women's sports does not threaten women's sports

Another issue is that as far as I can tell, these rules were written up and passed without ever consulting any of the affected athletes. The IOC guidelines strongly suggest that any rules should be written in concert with those affected. By USBC’s own admission, they have only had 30 submissions to compete as trans women since they created the rules in 2015. I personally know three women other than me who are affected and none of us were contacted.

The rule change also was not well publicized as I only became aware of it when I was shared an article about Christine Rebstock possibly not being allowed to compete due to the new rules. My inquiries to USBC about it prompted USBC to write an email to all of the affected women. All of those I know have received the email.

I personally have been competing in top level women’s events since about 2012 when I was already over 10 years past transition. I did not even bowl during and for a while after my transition due to fear of being outed. I had been bowling local women’s events, including the 2006 California State Tournament where our team won. In 2012, I bowled the U.S. Women’s Open and the USBC Women’s Championships, where our team bowled awesome (I was low on the team) and we won the scratch team title.

I made match play at the 2014 USBC Queens, winning one match. After the PWBA Tour restarted in 2015, I bowled every time it was in California, making match play in the very first event. I cashed again at the 2016 Queens and that is the last time I cashed in the PWBA. I have since bowled the Senior Queens twice, making match play both times, but only winning about three matches before getting bounced. Here is Powers-DeFer closing out a perfect game at the 2018 USBC Senior Queens. I made the finals of the Golden Ladies Classic in 2019, which is the furthest I have made it in top level women’s competition.

There was not much in the way of specified rules prior to 2015, but when I chose to bowl the PWBA events they had instituted the previous policy which I complied with by submitting the documentation that I was under the testosterone limit (which I have certainly been since surgery in 2000). The PWBA was fully aware of my status though I was still keeping it private from anyone else. I never once had anyone accost me or lodge a complaint with the PWBA against me. There really would be no reason as while I might occasionally cash, I was zero threat of actually winning.

I have the advantage of being almost 6 feet tall, giving me long legs and arms. I went through adolescence as male, but I can assure you that the women on Tour who work out could easily best me in any physical test. If they did not have this huge data set showing I didn’t have some inherent unfair advantage, would someone now look at me and deem me to have a “biomechanical” advantage?

Being over 50 I have started to lose ball speed, which when I was younger would likely have been on the high side for the Tour, but my rev rate has never been more than average. There are many on Tour that throw it harder with more revs than I ever did. I have definitely lost physical strength since transition, not that strength is always an indicator of huge advantage in bowling. I am only one data point, but as far as I am aware, I have had more success than any other trans woman in bowling.

If I am not a threat, why is USBC making the barrier to competition so high? There is no proof that allowing trans women to compete is going to destroy the sport. Without some scientific and statistical proof that the testosterone test is insufficient, they are simply erecting barriers to keep out “undesirables.”

None of this even addresses the issues of people that are non-binary or intersex.

I have discussed these new rules with those I know who also are affected. We all find the new rules insulting and discriminatory with no good scientific reason for the changes. It has led to one person deciding she will simply walk away from bowling. Another was going to, but may stick with it because her friends are pushing for her to stay.

Ironically, I do not have to do anything other than recertify my testosterone level, per the email I received from USBC’s Mike Spridco. Even that is ridiculous when I am 20 years removed from SRS, as the only way my testosterone would go up would be to inject it, which already is banned in every women’s (and men’s) sport under IOC rules. And that can be checked with a spot test, as is often done with Olympic athletes

I have decided to stick with it, and fight for the rights of those who will come after me. I do not want to be the poster child for trans women in bowling, but it doesn’t seem like I have a choice unless I want the transphobes to win.

Here are links to detailed information on the various topics as well as the actual rules and guidelines I referenced above:

USBC Transgender Policy

IOC Framework on Inclusion

IOC Transgender Presentation (slides)

WPATH Standards of Care for Transgender and Nonconforming People (delineates the process of transition)

Including Trans Women Athletes in Competitive Sport (Scholarly paper)

Sports Illustrated, Understanding the Different Rules and Policies for Transgender Athletes

Sports Illustrated: The IOC has a new Trans-inclusion framework, but is the damage already done?

USTA Transgender Policy

NWSL transgender policy

Transgender Athletes in the Olympics

Study of endocrine profiles of elite athletes

Trans exclusion in sports: a discriminatory and erroneous tradition

Anatomy Texts should show sex as a spectrum to include intersex people (scholarly article on biology)

NPR: Wave of Bills to block Trans Athletes has no basis in science

NBC: IOC issues new guidelines on transgender athletes (includes athletes from last Olympics)

Bowlage: USBC says Rebstock cannot compete as female, cite further requirements

Independent: Critics accuse trans swimming star Lia Thomas of having an unfair advantage. The data tells a different story

Note: To reach Power-DeFer, email her at spamgirl911-11thFrame@yahoo.com.

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Power-DeFer also offered a second article from Mozelle Rubio, another person impacted by the new rules.

Rubio wrote:

I got another email from USBC informing me that I'm now required to submit a medical doctor's letter of opinion as to whether or not I have any physical advantages over people assigned female at birth.

I’m also required to regularly submit bloodwork to prove my hormone levels are in line with that of a person assigned female at birth.

On top of that, I'm also required to submit a video to the USBC so they can decide, in their opinion, if I bowl like a man or bowl like a woman.

If they think I bowl like a man, I will be forced to compete as a man in scratch certified events and I will be disqualified for any female specific scratch awards/prizes in USBC/PWBA events .

I'm almost 50, obese, and have multiple health problems, including rehabbing a ruptured long head bicep tendon, torn labrum, and multiple tears in my rotator cuff.

On the lanes, 98% of people assigned female at birth will have a physical advantage over me. That's obvious to anyone who looks at me.

I’ll never be an elite bowler, but someone telling me "you can't," or trying to classify me via baseless information is all the motivation I need to make my best effort to.

When I compete, I don't want to be the best woman. I want to be the best BOWLER. I'm pretty sure any person of any gender will agree with me on that statement.

I don’t want, nor am I asking for "special" considerations. Its principle. 

People are born in all shapes and sizes. I’m pretty sure a 6-foot-6 person assigned female at birth who is 25 years old, has a huge hand, and does strength training every day is going to have an unfair physical advantage over a person assigned male at birth who is 5-foot-3 and 46 years old. BUT she is allowed to compete against him. No questions. They won't even check her for steroid use.

In my opinion, bowling is a game in which consistency and the ability to repeat shots with accuracy are the keys to success. How you're built is insignificant. For example, a slim guy like E.J. Tackett can throw harder, with a higher rev rate than people physically bigger like Wes Malott. A 12-year-old girl throwing 2-handed, no thumb can throw faster with a higher rev rate than me!

Are these "guidelines" the USBC has created even based on science? Were there any professionals in gender studies involved in the decision making of these new rules? Who sat on the panel in writing these guidelines and what resources were used in determining them?

Included in these emails I received, something is mentioned to the fact that a rev rate over 378 rpm is above the usual threshold of what a person assigned female at birth can normally generate. With the evolution of 2-handed bowling, I find this statement to be unfounded. YOU CAN’T CLASSIFY SOMEONE’S GENDER BASED ON THEIR REV RATE.

Since 2016, only about 30 male-to-female trans bowlers have submitted proper documentation to USBC for gender reclassification as I did since 2016. I’m thinking that number will be down to 5 or 10 who  submit for elite status/scratch competition. With over 300 anti-trans bills being passed legislatively in the past year, I'm curious as to if this may be some sort of political statement or maybe a particular person's ignorance/hatred toward trans women? I find the terminology "anti-discrimination," used in the USBC rule book a bit ironic.

I currently have not submitted anything to the USBC as of yet and a decision has not been made whether or not I am permitted to compete in "Elite Status" with the "female" gender classification. I’m just stating the requirements that have been imposed and my thoughts/concerns.

Kimberly Power-DeFer bowling. Contributed photo.
Kimberly Power-DeFer bowling. Contributed photo.