Belgium’s De Sutter breaks new ground for transgender politicians

POLITICO takes a look at those who paved the way before Petra De Sutter, who is now Europe’s highest-ranking transgender politician.


By Laurenz Gehrke


POLITICO (01.10.2020) – – Petra De Sutter made history Thursday with her appointment as Belgium’s new deputy prime minister, making her the highest-ranking transgender politician in Europe.


De Sutter has previously broken new ground for the EU’s transgender community, becoming the first Belgian transgender woman on a parliamentary list of a political party when she ran in the 2014 European Parliament election, though unsuccessfully. She later also became the first openly transgender Belgian MP that same year and ultimately won a seat as an MEP last year.


Katrin Hugendubel, the advocacy director of LGBTQ rights group ILGA-Europe, praised De Sutter’s new role as “great news,” adding: “We’ll miss one of our strongest partners in the European Parliament, but are heartened to know such a committed equality and social justice champion will have a key role in the Belgium government.”


De Sutter — who is also known for her work as a gynecologist and fertility expert, and has advocated for legislation to improve access to medically-assisted reproduction — has previously stressed that being transgender is only part of who she is.


“I don’t want to be reduced to my transgender past, it’s [only] one part of my identity,” she said last year in while campaigning in the European election. “I have many others. I want people to talk about me because of my work, because of my political actions.”


A look at the history of openly transgender politicians shows it’s a relatively short list of people who came before De Sutter in Europe, as well as worldwide.


The 2017 book “A Path to Diversity: LGBTQ Participation in the Working World” identifies Germany’s Christian Schenk as Europe’s first transgender member of parliament, though he was not publicly out as transgender when he joined the Bundestag in 1990, and did not make the official legal transition until 2006, after he had left parliament.


Schenk, who served as an MP between 1990 and 2002, said in several interviews after publicly coming out that — having fought for women’s rights while he was still a woman — he would continue to do so as a man. “Testosterone changes the hormone balance and not the brain content,” he said.


The first openly transgender MP in Europe was Italy’s Vladimir Luxuria, who was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2006.


While campaigning, Luxuria complained that Italy was “one of the very few nations in the European Union that did not recognize civil unions,” vowing to advocate for gay rights. The country didn’t start recognizing same-sex civil unions until a decade later.


When Luxuria left the Chamber of Deputies in 2008, there were no trans parliamentarians in Europe on the national level, until Anna Grodzka joined Poland’s parliament in 2011. She remained a member until 2015, a year after De Sutter joined the Belgian senate.


“Today, Poland is changing. I am the proof along with Robert Biedroń, a homosexual and the head of an anti-homophobia campaign who ran for office in Gdynia,” Grodzka said at the time, adding that she would be the only trans member of a parliament in the world — at least for the time being. The world’s first openly transgender MP, New Zealand’s Georgina Beyer, had left her seat in 2007 after entering office in 2005.


Despite Grodzka’s conviction that her election marked the beginning of change for Poland, members of the LGBTQ community have faced increased discrimination there since — in particular in the run-up to the country’s presidential election earlier this year.


The European Parliament’s first openly transgender member was Nikki Sinclaire, who served as an MEP for the UK Independence Party and later as an independent from 2009 to 2014, and came out as transgender in 2013.


Hugendubel from ILGA-Europe said De Sutter’s new role is especially significant at a time when “trans rights are being viciously attacked in Europe and the authenticity of gender identity is being called into question.”


“[It] means a lot for the LGBTI community to see a woman like her appointed to one of the highest roles in a European government.”

US: Trans athletes are posting victories and shaking up sports

Transgender athletes at all levels of sport are winning medals, spurring a contentious debate over the future of gendered competition.


By Christie Aschwanden


WIRED (29.10.2019) – – Transgender athletes are having a moment. At all levels of sport, they’re stepping onto the podium and into the headlines. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard won two gold medals at the Pacific Games, and college senior CeCé Telfer became the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II national champion in the 400-meter run. Another senior, June Eastwood, has been instrumental to her cross-country team’s success. At the high school level, Terry Miller won the girls’ 200-meter dash at Connecticut’s state open championship track meet.


These recent performances are inherently praiseworthy—shining examples of what humans can accomplish with training and effort. But as more transgender athletes rise to the top of their fields, some vocal opponents are also expressing outrage at what they see as transgender athletes ruining sports for cisgendered girls and women.


These issues have come to a head in Connecticut, where a conservative Christian group called Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a legal complaint on behalf of three high school athletes who are seeking to bar transgender girls from competing in the girls category. In Connecticut, as in more than a dozen other states, high school athletes are allowed to compete in the category that matches their gender identity. According to ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb, two transgender athletes—Miller and another runner, Andraya Yearwood—“have amassed 15 different state championship titles that were once held by nine different girls across the state.” The US Department of Education’s office for civil rights is now investigating the group’s complaint.


Nowhere are the debates around transgender rights as stark as they are in sports, where the temptation to draw a hard biological line has run up against the limits of what science can offer. The outcome, at least so far, is an inconsistent mix of rules that leaves almost nothing resolved.


In the NCAA, for example, transgender women can compete on women’s teams after they’ve completed one year of testosterone suppression treatment. But the organization doesn’t place limits on what a transgender athlete’s testosterone levels can be. The International Olympic Committee has more granular rules: Transgender women can compete in the women’s category as long as their blood testosterone levels have been maintained below 10 nano moles per liter for a minimum of 12 months. Cisgender men typically have testosterone levels of 7.7 to 29.4 nano moles per liter, while premenopausal cis women are generally 1.7 nmol/L or less. Meanwhile, the governing body of track and field just adopted a 5nmol/L limit.


So which approach is most fair? “Fair is a very subjective word,” says Joanna Harper, a transgender woman, distance runner, and researcher who served on the IOC committee that developed that organization’s current rules. It boils down to whom you’re trying to be fair to, Harper says. “To billions of typical women who cannot compete with men at high levels of sport?” Or “a very repressed minority in transgender people who only want to enjoy the same things that everybody else does, including participation in sports?”


Transgender women’s performances generally decline as their testosterone does. But not every male advantage dissipates when testosterone drops. Some advantages, such as their bigger bone structure, greater lung capacity, and larger heart size remain, says Alison Heather, a physiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Testosterone also promotes muscle memory—an ability to regain muscle mass after a period of detraining—by increasing the number of nuclei in muscles, and these added nuclei don’t go away. So transgender women have a heightened ability to build strength even after they transition, Heather says.


One way to address these issues, Heather and her colleagues wrote in an essay published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, would be to create a handicap system that uses an algorithm to account for physiological parameters such as testosterone, hemoglobin levels, height, and endurance capacity, as well as social factors like gender identity and socioeconomic status. “Such an algorithm would be analogous to the divisions in the Paralympics, and may also include paralympians,” they write. Instead of two divisions, male and female, there would be multiple ones and “athletes would be placed into a division which best mitigates unfair physical and social parameters.” The algorithm would need to be sport-specific, and Heather and her colleagues acknowledge that producing it would be a difficult task.


Another approach would be to create a third category for people who don’t fit neatly into the male/female dichotomy (including intersex people, who are born with a mix of male and female traits). Although this might sound like a simple solution, Harper says that “As a transgender person myself, I don’t want to compete in a third category, which many people would see as a freak category.” It could also limit opportunities for transgender athletes if there are not enough of them to fill out a team or category.


For all the hand-wringing about transgender women ruining women’s sport, so far there’s little evidence of that happening. Although CeCé Telfer and June Eastwood garnered attention for their outstanding performances on women’s collegiate running teams, they are hardly the only transgender athletes in the NCAA. Helen Carroll is a LGBTQ sports advocate who worked on the NCAA transgender handbook. Through her advocacy work, she has interacted extensively with transgender athletes and she estimates there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 transgender athletes currently competing in NCAA sports. Most of them “you don’t hear a thing about,” she says, because their participation hasn’t caused controversy.


Sport can be a life-saver for transgender people, who are at high risk of suicide, Carroll says. “They’ve been fighting themselves and feeling like they were in the wrong body, and sport gives them a place to be happy about their body and what it can do.”


Where to draw the line between inclusiveness for transgender athletes and fairness for cis ones is an ethical question that ultimately requires value judgements that can only be informed, not decided, by science. Even basic notions of a level playing field aren’t easy to codify. Which means that at some point the question of who is a woman becomes a cultural inquiry: How athletically outstanding can a girl or woman be before we no longer see her as female?