Inspiring Thursday: Kristen Worley
This month, in celebration of Pride, we’ll be posting stories of inspiring women who are activists in the LGBTQ+ community. Queer heroes aren’t often given the recognition they deserve, but Pride is an opportunity to celebrate them and make sure they’re not forgotten.
Trans women in particular were influential in the initial Pride protests at the New York City Stonewall Inn in 1969, but they are often disregarded in conventional LGBTQ+ discourse. As feminists, as activists and as allies, we have to support our sisters — not just our cis-ters.*
Kristen Worley was always an avid athlete. Born in 1966 as Chris Jackson, she was adopted by a conservative family in small town Ontario, Canada. Sport was a mode of communication for Kristen and her parents, who were often more open to competition than affection.
While she felt increasingly uncomfortable as Chris, Kristen threw herself into distance running, waterskiing and cycling, where she could escape the confines of gender identity. In high school, she struggled with eating disorders and her overall mental health, which she now associates with gender dysphoria in a biologically male-identified body.
After high school, Kristen distanced herself from her adoptive family and started competing in high level Canadian cycling, aiming for the Olympics. While she still identified as Chris, she married Allison Worley.
A cycling crash in her early 20s shattered Worley’s pelvis and left her unable to compete — and with what seemed like no escape from the gender dysphoria she had tried to escape for so long. It was then that she decided to completely transition to a female identity and undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Supported primarily by her wife, Kristen began hormone treatment to decrease her testosterone and increase estrogen levels. She describes the physical and mental duress of transition: “your brain goes through a massive chemical change and adjustment. Along with relief and delight, you also feel depression, confusion, anxiety and doubt: ‘Why do I have to tell so-and-so?’ ‘This is too difficult.’ ‘I’m scared to wear women’s clothes in public. Can’t I just wear them at home?’” (Worley and Schneller).
Self doubt and anxiety daunted her, but at 38, after completing arduous surgeries, learning to live in an adapting body and fighting the government for recognition of her gender identity, Kristen received her new birth certificate and identification from the government of Ontario.
Kristen and Allison stayed together for seven years after her transition. Now divorced, they remain close friends.
Kristen returned to competitive cycling in the early 2000s, with inspiration from Michelle Dumaresq — another trans female Canadian cyclist who was facing legal challenges to her right to compete as a woman. Kristen advocated for Dumaresq’s case, and embarked on a legal journey of her own.
In 2003, the International Olympic Committee ‘recommended’ that female transgender athletes be allowed to compete, so long as they demonstrate a set testosterone level and proof of hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery and legal recognition of their assigned sex.
Worley was the first athlete in the world to be tested, questioned and examined under these conditions. She describes the invasive, inhumane treatment she faced in the journey for recognition of her gender: “I had to sit in front of panels of men who I did not know, asking me questions about my sexuality, my gender, my body; I had to give up all my medical information; I was gynaecologically tested… I was violated, it was completely humiliating” (Cycling Weekly).
The transition as an athlete continued to prove challenging. Post-transition, Worley describes the volatile emotions and depleted physical capabilities. She explains: “Within three months of my surgical transition, I went through spontaneous menopause… We’re now able to show that, because I don’t have any hormonal response in my body, [without sufficient synthetic testosterone] my health declines. No matter how much I train, my body continues to atrophy” (Cycling Weekly). Kristen needed a testosterone supplement to continue training at a high level, and she had to personally submit the research to the Canadian anti-doping authority (CCES) to demonstrate the scientific validity of her claim for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). The CCES would spend months deliberating every time she requested this exemption, ruining Worley’s training cycles and dashing her chances at Olympic competition.
Finally, in 2013, Worley declined to resign her competing license, tired of fighting with sports bodies which were continuously denying her research and experience. She knew she needed to take a stand against the aggressive, invasive and inhumane treatment she’d been through — and advocate for the dignity and respect of all trans athletes.
In May 2015, Worley took on a lawsuit of the IOC, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the Ontario Cycling Association (OCA) and Cycling Canada Cyclisme (CCC).
After a two-year battle, Worley succeeded, and influenced an international change in cycling policy on transgender athletes. The UCI, the OCA and the CCC stated that they would “review and revise internal policies to embrace human rights” and “advocate for the establishment of standards and guidelines related to XY female athletes based in objective scientific research” (CBC News).
While Worley recognizes that there is still a long way to go for the integration and acceptance of trans athletes, her work on cycling policies in Canada and abroad are seminal in creating more diverse, accepting sports environments.
Worley continues to advocate for women’s rights in sports around the world, providing experience and insight into gender and competition. Her book, Woman Enough, was published in March 2019.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
*Cisgender: of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth (Merriam Webster).
“Cisgender.” Merriam Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cisgender
Elton-Walters, Jack. “Kristen Worley: Canadian cyclist fighting sport’s gender rules and supporting Caster Semenya.” Cycling Weekly. 2008. https://www.cyclingweekly.com/fitness/kristen-worley-canadian-cyclist-fighting-sports-gender-rules-and-supporting-caster-semenya-273796
Ewing, Lori. “Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley blazes own trail as voice for gender diversity in sport.” The Globe and Mail. April 19, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/article-canadian-cyclist-kristen-worley-blazes-own-trail-as-voice-for-gender/
Haynes, Suyin. “Transgender Activists at the Center of Stonewall Riots Will Be Honored With a Monument in New York.” Time Magazine. May 30, 2019. http://time.com/5598110/sylvia-rivera-marsha-johnson-monument-stonewall/
IOC Approves Consensus With Regard to Athletes Who Have Changed Sex.” IOC News, olympic.org. May 2004. https://www.olympic.org/news/ioc-approves-consensus-with-regard-to-athletes-who-have-changed-sex
“Kristen Worley’s continuing battle for dignity in sports.” CBC News. July 18, 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/kristen-worley-s-continuing-battle-for-dignity-in-sports-1.4211661
“Stonewall Riots.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, May 31, 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots
Worley, Kristen and Johanna Schneller. Woman Enough. Random House, 2019.