Society / February 2, 2024

How the World of Competitive Climbing Was Rocked by Transphobia

The governing body for sport climbing issued new restrictions on trans athletes with no warning. All hell broke loose.

Frankie de la Cretaz
Natalia Grossman of the United States raises her arms after winning gold in the women's boulder lead climbing final at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.

Natalia Grossman of the United States raises her arms after winning gold in the women’s boulder lead climbing final at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, on Tuesday, October 24, 2023.

(Esteban Felix / AP)

On Wednesday, October 4, 2023, USA Climbing (USAC), the governing body that oversees the field of sport climbing in the United States, sent an e-mail to its members and newsletter subscribers. It was titled, “USA Climbing Rules and Policies Update.” At the bottom of the e-mail was a single paragraph that read, “The Transgender Athlete Participation Policy seeks to maximize both inclusivity and fairness within the sport by providing guidance for athletes seeking to compete in a gender category that differs from the sex assigned to them at birth.”

The e-mail linked to an updated policy about the participation of transgender people in competitive climbing. An accompanying letter from Marc Norman, USAC’s president and CEO, and Kate Felsen Di Pietro, chair of the USAC Board of Directors, said, “After consultation with various USA Climbing stakeholders, careful review of scientific and inclusion literature, and thoughtful discussions among the Board and staff, the USA Climbing Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve updates to the Transgender Athlete Participation Policy.”

The policy, which impacted climbers as young as 12, was an extreme departure from the previous USAC guidelines, placing many more restrictions on transgender athletes to qualify for competition. It was also more stringent than the policy set by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), and seemed to go against the Best Practices for Gender Inclusion listed on USAC’s website.

The news came as a shock to much of the climbing community, including trans climbers whose eligibility was no longer guaranteed and at least three members of USAC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, who say they had never seen or been consulted on the new policy and had no idea it was even in the works.

In the aftermath of the new policy announcement, backlash was fierce. The former chair of USAC’s DEI Committee, who is a transgender athlete, resigned in protest. A group of transgender climbers organized to fight the policy, garnering a petition that has received over 11,000 signatures, and gyms began boycotting USAC-sanctioned events until a new policy could be written that centered trans, nonbinary, and intersex voices.

The outcry was so intense that USAC was forced to backpedal. On November 30, 2023, the group announced that the updated policy was being delayed “to reduce administrative complexities for all athletes.”

“In hindsight,” Norman told Climbing magazine last month, “parts of the policy went too far.” (Norman and USAC declined to comment for this story.)

The internal machinations of a relatively niche sport like climbing might seem unimportant to some people, but the fact that this controversy has exploded shows just how intense the pressure has become to diminish the ability of trans people to participate equally in nearly every corner of society, including every sport imaginable. So it’s worth looking closely at just how this failure of leadership unfolded. The Nation spoke to approximately a dozen sources both inside USAC and within the world of climbing (most of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely), as well as reviewing internal e-mails and documents to determine what the process for creating this new Trans Athlete Participation Policy (TAPP) actually looked like.

“I wasn’t surprised that policy was going to come out,” says Cat Runner, a professional climber and one of the co-organizers of Trans Climbers Belong (TCB), a group of trans climbers who formed to protest the new TAPP. “I think I was surprised at the strictness of our policy, because we went from having an extremely inclusive, open policy to really harsh, strict requirements.”

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One thing that is clear: Yet again, it is transgender athletes who are being harmed by the organizations and sports many of them have dedicated their lives to.

“The whole way USA Climbing has handled this has made me want to reconsider whether or not I want to keep competing,” says one trans climber, who requested anonymity because they feared repercussions for publicly criticizing USAC.

At the same time, some trans climbers are heartened by the way so much of the climbing community has supported them.

“When this policy was first released, I felt crushed,” says Kristen Fiore, the president of CRAG Vermont, an outdoor agency that protects climbing access in the state of Vermont, and a co-organizer of TCB. “I was so angry and sad, I felt like I was in the early stages of grieving, and I felt very unwelcome in my community. But doing this organizing has reignited my love for the climbing community.”

In early 2022, the USAC DEI Committee decided to begin work that it hoped would help both clarify and strengthen USAC’s existing policies on inclusion. Climbing had always been a fairly welcoming sport for trans athletes, so this seemed like a natural step.

The committee created a framework that it called the “Gender Inclusion Policy” and spent nine months crafting it, utilizing the educational efforts provided by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee as well as countless resources designed to center inclusive sporting practices.

USAC’s preexisting policy allowed trans athletes to participate in whichever division aligned with their gender as long as they provided documentation that affirmed that identity, whether it be a letter from a doctor or therapist. If an athlete qualified for a national team or planned to compete internationally, they had to adhere to the IFSC’s policy. (Sport climbing made its Olympic debut at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo; the sport is still waiting to hear whether Paraclimbing will make its Paralympic debut in Los Angeles in 2028.)

USA Climbing is the US National Governing Body (NGB) for the sport. The way that elite sports are structured, NGBs feed into the International Federations (IFs) for internationally sanctioned competitions, and it is a sport’s IF that is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But nationally—whether for national championships or lower levels of competitions—it’s the NGB that governs the sport.

In 2015, the IOC created a transgender inclusion policy that most IFs deferred to. That policy stated that transfeminine athletes hoping to compete in the women’s division were required to have testosterone levels under 10 nmol/L (a level that most transfeminine athletes on HRT would have no problem meeting), and there was no restriction on transmasculine athletes who wanted to compete in the men’s division. That is the policy the IFSC still maintains.

However, in 2021, the IOC announced a new framework for trans inclusion at the Olympic level. While the framework is positive in many respects—for instance, it recommends that governing bodies move away from testosterone-based policies because the existing science does not support them, and it indicates that identity-based bans are discriminatory—it has created a host of problems in elite sports. That’s because, rather than lay out specific rules of its own, the IOC now stresses that it is only offering guidance. It asks the governing bodies of each sport to create their own trans policies, thus outsourcing the decision-making—and the controversy—lower down the hierarchical ladder. And since this new system was implemented amid an onslaught of anti-trans extremism, the result has been a rash of IFs putting incredibly strict policies in place, in many cases outright banning trans women from competing at all.

In his interview with Climbing, Norman hinted that this environment had affected USAC’s decision to overhaul its rules. He told the magazine that the catalyst for putting a new policy in place was the fact that USAC had received a complaint about a transgender child’s participation in a USAC-sanctioned event. He provided enough detail about this competitor for them to be identified by the larger community, essentially outing them; ultimately, Climbing had to edit the story to protect the trans child.

The new policy that USAC announced to the community on October 4 was a complete overhaul of what had existed before and a “gutting” of the “Gender Inclusion Policy” the DEI Committee had diligently spent months drafting, according to a public statement written by former chair of the DEI Committee Malcom Godowski and confirmed by The Nation, which reviewed a draft of that policy.

Essentially, the new policy was this: USAC wanted all climbers, regardless of age, to apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) if they were taking a normally banned substance, such as testosterone (often taken by trans men) or spironolactone (which can be used to treat anything from acne to hair loss but is often taken by trans women to reduce testosterone). But this could also include medications like certain acne treatments or stimulants taken as treatment for ADHD. Historically, most TUE requirements and anti-doping testing begin at the National Championship level and above. But USAC wanted everyone, from the lowest-level beginner to the most elite competitor, to register with the drug agency. It also reduced the testosterone levels for transfeminine climbers to 5 nmol/L.

The new policy would also require climbers beginning in the Youth B division, which starts at age 14, to receive gender-affirming hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in order to compete in a gender category that was different than the gender they were assigned at birth. In addition to the ethical questions regarding pressuring children to medically transition in order to compete in a sport, 21 states currently ban gender-affirming care for minors, which means that even if a child wanted to adhere to this policy, they could be legally prevented from doing so. There were concerns about medical privacy for athletes submitting their paperwork to USAC. And finally, the policy was announced in the middle of a season, and did not provide athletes nearly enough time to get all their paperwork in order even if they could meet all the requirements that the TAPP laid out.

Norman told Climbing that he expected the IFSC to adopt a stricter policy soon.

Richard Aspland, communications officer for the IFSC, denied that in a statement to The Nation, though he added, “As one of our Member Federations has just gone through this process to put in place a new policy it would mean there is potentially new information available to us which could help evolve ours.”

Other climbing groups have gone a different way. In 2021, Climbing Escalade Canada, the Canadian NGB, updated its trans inclusion policy and outlined its rationale for the policy it ended up creating—essentially providing a road map for any other governing bodies that wanted to follow suit. That policy is incredibly inclusive, centering human rights laws and stating that “if an individual does not fit our ingrained assumptions about sex and gender, it is up to the sport to adapt, not the individual.”

This is a far cry from the way USAC approached the TAPP. “The guiding principle across the process was to try and find this very difficult balance between equity and inclusion and fairness on the field of play,” Norman told Climbing. “Fairness” in competition is a common dog whistle that anti-trans voices in sports use to push restrictive policies and it’s a red herring to position it in opposition to inclusion. “Fairness” also often ends up centering ideas about what is “fair” to cis athletes, rather than addressing what is “fair” for trans athletes—the most marginalized athletes in the room.

On September 14, 2022, Godowski, presented the “Gender Inclusion Policy” to the Board of Directors at a closed meeting. Then, according to multiple members of the DEI Committee, they heard nothing else about the policy until the e-mail went out on October 4, 2023.

There was, in fact, a small working group created to draft a new trans inclusion policy. In describing that group, Norman told Climbing that USA Climbing tasked “one transgender individual, who was already a member of a USA Climbing committee, to create the policy alongside a cis-gender individual, a medical representative, and USA Climbing’s DEI committee.” The cisgender individual was Dr. Constance Lightner, a member of both USAC’s Board of Directors and the DEI Committee—and one of the only Black people on the board. The transgender individual was Godowski.

But that work did not begin until June 2023—nine months after the DEI Committee presented the board with its Gender Inclusion Policy—and according to multiple sources, members of the special committee were asked not to share the fact that they were working on this policy with any of the other committees. Godowski agreed to this because, as he writes in his statement, “the agreement, and thus the assumption, was that any drafted policy would be reviewed by relevant stakeholders, outside entities, and legal counsel before being published and implemented.”

The Board of Directors likely thought that the DEI Committee—and trans stakeholders in the community—were involved the entire time. The meeting minutes for the board meeting just before the TAPP was passed indicate that board chair Di Pietro cited “the extensive work over the past year on this topic,” which included “frequent Medical Committee and DEI Committee Meetings, regular board meeting discussions, polling of the board, the board’s September 2022 special meeting for Medical and DEI presentations, and review of extensive medical and DEI resources on the topic.”

The “polling of the board” that is cited was a survey given to the board following the September 2022 special meeting in which the DEI Committee’s Gender Inclusion Policy was presented. Board members were asked to rate a series of questions on a scale of 1 to 5 regarding how they felt about transgender athletes’ being able to compete. A source who was familiar with the results of that survey said it was essentially all “threes” across the board, indicating that people were neutral or did not have enough information to make a decision either way. And while there had been “DEI presentations… and resources” provided on the issue, the TAPP did not reflect any of the recommendations, science, or best practices put forth by those DEI materials.

After reviewing internal e-mails with lists of recommended organizations to reach out to for guidance—some of which had Norman cc’d directly or contained explicit directives for John Muse, USAC’s vice president for sports, to follow up on certain questions—The Nation reached out to those groups to confirm whether anyone from USAC had been in contact prior to releasing the TAPP on October 4. One of the groups was USADA; according to Dr. Matthew Fedoruck, the chief science officer at USADA, no one at USADA had seen USAC’s TAPP until The Nation sent it to him.

This is not what Norman told Climbing. He claims that “all involved were asked to seek out input from the greater community.”

In his resignation letter, Godowski is clear that he told Muse—and the rest of the working group—that he would not provide an endorsement of the policy, as he did not support it. (Lightner made her own public statement on Instagram, disputing Godowski’s version of events.)

To trans members of the climbing community, it’s hard not to see Norman’s statements as USAC leadership throwing a trans person under the bus because of backlash from their own actions. Godowski is “being tokenized and propped up to support a policy” that harms his community, one person close to the situation said. The fact that Lightner has also had to defend herself publicly means that it is members of some of the most marginalized groups who are taking heat for decisions made at an organizational level.

USAC began backpedaling. It paused the policy on November 30, prompting Riley Gaines, the former NCAA swimmer, Fox News talking head, and cis woman crusader against trans women’s ability to participate in sports, to rip into the organization for backing down. Its social media accounts were flooded with bigotry, forcing USAC to delete posts to try to curb the response.

Then it sent out a survey to the community to gather input on how people felt about the issue—another misstep, because USAC essentially polled the entire climbing community about whether they wanted trans people to be able to compete (a mistake USA Cycling made last year, as well).

Not only that, gyms were threatening to boycott USAC-sanctioned events until a new policy that centered trans, nonbinary, and intersex voices could be written. Over 100 coaches, setters, athletes, and climbing community leaders signed a solidarity letter to USA Climbing.

“The biggest thing I was concerned about was confidentiality for our kids,” Andrea Charest, owner of Petra Cliffs climbing gym in Burlington, Vt., told The Nation. “We have kids who are socially transitioning on our teams and you can see that climbing is a place they feel comfortable and can be at home and I want that to continue. I know people are not transitioning solely to win competitions.”

On December 21, Norman sent a letter to gym owners hoping to cull talk of a USAC boycott. The letter apologized for the position the TAPP put gym owners in and acknowledged that USAC’s first attempt at a gender inclusion policy was “unsuccessful.” The letter also hoped to garner support for USAC by telling gym owners about the new National Training Center (NTC) they were planning to build in Salt Lake City, Utah. The NTC would host major national and international events, provide elite athletes with dedicated training spaces, and promised to “reinvest” any income generated back “into the sport nationwide.”

The letter backfired. It turned out that gyms weren’t all that hyped that the USAC was going to own a commercial facility to use exclusively for its big-ticket events. Not only that, the location of the NTC in Utah—which has banned gender-affirming care for minors, bars trans youth athletes from competing in categories that match their gender identity, and just passed one of the most extreme bathroom bills in the country—only underscored how out of touch the USAC seemed when it came to trans participating in climbing.

“Have they even considered if and how any of those laws will affect trans athletes who come to compete at a USAC event or train at the national training center?” one trans athlete wonders. “Even if they have an inclusive policy in place for USAC events, are they willing to fight to legally support a trans athlete who [hypothetically] uses the bathroom at their facility and is reported to the authorities?”

USAC announced that, as of the first week of January, plans for the NTC were paused. And on January 29, Alice Kao, CEO of the climbing gym Sender One and a member of USAC’s Board of Directors, resigned, saying, “I have now lost all confidence in this Board’s ability to lead USA Climbing and steward competition climbing in the way this sport deserves.”

The mess that USAC has found itself in is one that many other sports are or will be facing as they try to navigate the cultural and political pressures of anti-trans sentiment and bad-faith actors lobbying to exclude trans athletes from competition. One only has to look to the lawsuits being faced by other governing bodies like those that oversee swimming, powerlifting, and disc golf to see that many of the trans athletes who have been harmed by governing bodies indiscriminately passing exclusionary policies are fighting back through whatever means necessary.

The DEI Committee has been left to try to salvage both USAC’s reputation and fight for a better policy. It has begun to have meetings with Trans Climbers Belong, and has been in touch with people at Athlete Ally for guidance as it moves forward.

“I have been working really hard with trans groups and key people at the organization to completely revise everything,” one person who has been closely involved with the process said, declining to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on USAC’s behalf. “The more I meet with ally groups, the more that I realize I didn’t know and understand.”

That forces the question—if everyone on the board of directors didn’t read the policy they approved, and if the people who helped draft the policy didn’t understand the issue, why was the policy released to the greater public at all?

We may never have a good answer to that question, and trans climbers don’t want to waste too much time looking backward. There are two potential outcomes here. One is that USAC still ultimately comes down on the side of intense restrictions on trans athletes. But the other outcome is the one many members of the community are holding out hope for—the possibility that a good, inclusive policy could end up in its place.

“I hope USAC sees Trans Climbers Belong as an asset,” says Fiore. “We have been really critical of USAC but we have credibility in the trans community and in the climbing community. I did feel a tone shift [during our meeting]. We might get a crack at doing this right.”

Frankie de la Cretaz

Frankie de la Cretaz is a freelance writer whose work sits at the intersection of sports, gender, culture, and queerness. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Vogue, The Washington Post, Bleacher Report, The Ringer, and The Atlantic, among others. Their book, Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, cowritten with Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, was named one of the Los Angeles Times’ “10 sports books we loved in 2021.”

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