Cycling has a trans exclusion problem.
In cyclocross, where competitors race skinny-tired drop bar bikes off road, heckling is common. At the 2021 national championships, competitors expected some banter from the crowd, but nobody really expected a group of sign-holding anti-trans protesters who called themselves “Save Women’s Sports” (SWS) to post up at the race, much less be allowed to maintain their protest throughout the events.
The arrival of the protesters shocked and upset many racers. By SWS’ own admission they were not received well. One woman told the anti-trans protesters “your shit feminism isn’t welcome here.” Despite the cycling community rejecting SWS’ message of transphobia, this level of bigotry was no surprise to trans racers.
According to trans advocate and cyclist Tara Seplavy, USA Cycling—the sport’s governing body—has allowed their harassment to increase for years and let things escalate by refusing to support and defend trans racers. “USA Cycling has known for at least five years, that something like this was coming and they chose inaction instead of action,” Seplavy said in an interview.
In 2018, Veronica Ivy became the first trans woman to win a cycling world championship in the 35-44 women’s sprint category. This placed the event squarely at the center of the culture war and made trans cyclists worried to go out and compete. It was at this point, Seplavy says, that USA Cycling could have taken a strong stand behind trans athletes: “They could have very easily squashed everything. Instead, they sat there and wanted to play the ‘both sides’ argument instead of just dealing with it.”
In the years since Ivy’s victory, there has been a steady increase in transphobic sentiment towards bike racers. The incredibly vocal anti-trans sentiments of former pro racer Inga Thompson have been joined by women in various amateur fields voicing their feelings about the participation of trans women. In one interview, Thompson compared trans women competing with other women to able-bodied athletes competing in a paralympic category. In another piece, Evie Edwards—an amateur cyclist—referred to a trans woman as “a male body.” As Seplavy pointed out, many of the trans women who would have liked to have raced at the 2021 National championships failed to qualify, but this hasn’t stopped them from being targets of abuse and harassment.
Despite multiple meetings, phone calls, and “listening sessions”, USA Cycling has completely failed to act according to Seplavy: “We have been talking about this stuff with them for, at this point, half a decade and they are not doing anything about it. Now we are two months on from the national championships, they haven’t done a blessed thing, they haven’t issued a statement, they haven’t even done the wrong thing yet. They have quite literally done nothing.”
Seplavy is far from alone in her feelings that USA cycling could do more. In the wake of the protest at Cyclocross Nationals, Flynn Leonard, an official with USA Cycling, published an open letter calling for the resignation of Rob DeMartini, the organization’s CEO’s and the organization’s Safe Sport coordinator Kelsey Erickson, who is responsible for preventing hate speech and bullying. “I feel ashamed wearing my USA cycling officials clothing,” Leonard wrote. They garnered 105 signatures from racers and other cyclists in support of their demands. A day after Leonard sent their letter, DeMartini announced he was stepping down.
DeMartini has something of a history of failing to act to protect trans athletes. In an April 2021 interview with Singletracks.com about the governing body’s reaction to Arkansas’ anti-trans legislation which would prevent trans girls from competing in interscholastic sports that align with their gender, DeMartini dismissed the concerns of trans cyclists. “It would be different if our athletes were going to be affected,” DeMartini said “but we don’t believe they will be.” Technically, the law does not impact interscholastic cycling because racers compete for clubs at these events and not their schools. However, excluding trans kids from school sports does harm trans bike racers as many were quick to point out in response to the interview. DeMartini followed up with a statement claiming he was quoted “out of context”, despite the statement being part of a long block quotation. He did go on to state “USA Cycling is against any legislation that limits transgender inclusion.”
Tara Seplavy shared that after his disastrous interview, he called her to admit fault and asked her and others to give input on his statement. “I did a full edit workup on it and I was like, ‘This is garbage,'” she said, “But they sent it out anyway.”
It is not just USA Cycling, but also the US Center for Safe Sport that has failed to protect trans riders. Earlier in 2021, Leonard filed a complaint against an official who has consistently posted transphobic sentiments on public social media pages. The US Center for Safe Sport was set up by Congress in 2017 to protect athletes following the sexual abuse scandals in swimming and gymnastics. The goal was to allow for swift removal of abusers from positions of authority, train coaches and athletes to report abuse, and conduct background checks on people who would be trusted with young athletes. However, USA Cycling seems to interpret the rules to exclude gender-based discrimination.
Leonard is far from the only USA Cycling participant to have filed a complaint alleging anti-trans bigotry, bullying, or discrimination. But in the three cases that Autostraddle has been aware of, Leonard’s was the only one that resulted in any form of action from the governing body. In other cases, where trans women were bullied or threatened, the governing body appears to have taken no action to protect them.
This inaction might be why the Save Women’s Sports protesters chose cycling as a target for their protest. Judging by videos they posted and have since deleted from Twitter but not Instagram, they are not hugely familiar with the sport.
Save Women’s Sports presents itself as an organic reaction to the participation of trans women—who it has repeatedly called “males”—in women’s categories. It claims that several racers in the cyclocross national championships “privately” contacted the organization to express concerns, but only one racer—Evie Edwards—competed under the SWS team banner. SWS is not a nonprofit, making their financial ties to these hate groups hard to uncover. The organization is registered in Minnesota as a business but appears to be a sole proprietor set up and run exclusively by founder Beth Stelzer. Both Edwards and SWS have used the race to aggressively fundraise. Stelzer makes $385 per month on Patreon by “creating awareness of males invading female spaces,” she also receives donations on her personal Venmo page, which she appears to also use to cover personal expenses. Much of this “awareness” seems to be tied to anti trans talking points and not the many instances in which trans women compete happily alongside cis women almost every weekend. SWS has previously worked with far-right organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council to prepare a guide to “help parents understand the transgender issue.” The guide, while claiming to be unbiased, refers to the “transgender trend” and repeatedly calls trans women men. When she is not advocating against the inclusion of trans people in sport, Stelzer appears at anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality right-wing Christian events.
Despite the failure of the USA Cycling to protect trans riders, cyclists have taken it upon themselves to protect valued members of the racing community from harassment. Actions of solidarity have ranged from blocking the SWS protesters at the national championships, to announcers refusing to mention racers on the SWS team, to athletes winning the biggest races in the US with trans pride wristbands on. This solidarity is important, but it seems that the governing body has chosen to ignore it. For Tara Seplavy, this isn’t enough to keep her or other riders safe. In one conversation with the USA Cycling, she reports telling them the following: “We are one person with a gun away from someone taking a potshot at me or Tiffany or whoever else it is and probably missing us and hitting some fucking junior rider.”
With little sign of change since DeMartini’s departure, there’s not much evidence that the sport’s governing body has taken any steps to move off that track.