RICHMOND, Va. — When Mary Gregory filled out the registration form to compete in a local weightlifting event, she checked the box that read "female" without hesitation.
"I mean, that's my gender," she said "I didn't even think about it. That's who I am."
If any eyebrows were raised, Gregory didn't notice, and on April 27, after months of training, she strode onto the platform at the Best Western hotel just east of Charlottesville, Virginia, and wowed the spectators and fellow powerlifters in attendance. That night she posted a picture on Instagram of herself holding a trophy, telling her 120 followers about the records she set for her age and weight class in the 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation, which organized the day's competition.
"What a day, 9 for 9!" she posted. "Masters world squat record, open world bench record, masters world dl record, and masters world total record! Still processing . . ."
She continued: "As a transgender lifter I was unsure what to expect going into this meet and everyone - all the spotters, loaders, referees, staff, meet director, all made me welcome and treated me as just another female lifter- thank you!"
The positive feelings would be short-lived. News of the transgender lifter who broke female records began circulating, and just a couple of days later, Gregory was stripped of her titles and barred from competing as a woman.
"She put down female. Clearly, she's not a female," said Paul Bossi, 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation's president. "Not biologically anyways.
"In our rules, we go by biological," he said. "According to the rules, she can only lift in the men's division. . . . I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings but I have to follow the rules."
He said Gregory never volunteered that she was transgender and event organizers didn't confirm she'd competed in the wrong category until a post-match drug test was administered.
"We could've rectified a lot of this prior had we known," Bossi said. "In a way, we felt like we were duped."
Gregory, 44, says she never misled anyone. Two weeks later, she is still hurt and angry, as the larger sports world continues to wrestle with defining and imposing gender classifications, finding a balance for competition that's both fair and inclusive.
"I felt like they were invalidating my gender and my identity," said Gregory, who began hormone replacement treatment a year ago and feels she should be allowed to compete alongside any other female.
Gregory's impressive performance followed by the organization's swift reversal created an immediate stir in both the LGBTQ and weightlifting communities, prompting heated debates about fairness, physiology and gender traits.
Sharron Davies, a retired Olympic swimmer from England, said that "woman with female biology cannot compete" against a "male body with male physiology."
"Socially I'm for everyone living the way they wish, safely, not harming others but sport is ALL about biology not ideology," she tweeted.
Retired middle-distance runner Kelly Holmes, a two-time Olympic champion from England, called the affair "a bloody joke" and said transgender athletes should perhaps have separate competitions. "Otherwise i'm starting to worry about the backlash and abuse that the trans community will get from spectators," she wrote on Twitter. "It will happen!"
Gregory's shoulders dropped slightly this week, when she talked about the criticism she's faced. It's mostly rooted in ignorance, she said, people who assume because she was born a man that she's naturally stronger and holds an unfair advantage over female competitors.
"There's this sense out there that I put on a dress and just stepped on the platform," she said. "That's the furthest thing from the truth. I mean, I've had to work my ass off."
'Reality is not that simple'
Sports organizations and governing bodies increasingly are grappling with gender issues, evolving definitions and identifications. At the high school level, transgender athletes have won track races and wrestling matches. Transgender athletes have made headlines in cycling and high-level rugby, where they've at times collectively drawn the ire and condemnation from other competitors and event organizers.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has offended many in the LGBTQ community with some of her comments on the subject. She wrote a piece in The Sunday Times this year, saying, "It's insane and it's cheating" and once tweeted (and deleted), "You can't just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard." She later apologized for saying transgender athletes are cheating, noting that "all I am trying to do is to make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport."
For many, the issue revolves around biological advantages, testosterone and equality. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has struggled in recent years to settle on a fair playing field and has overcome legal challenges to institute a rule that puts a limit on testosterone levels for female competitors in some events.
"In sports, it's traditionally been viewed very simply. There are two categories: male and female. The complication is that biology and reality is not that simple," said Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, a critic of the IAAF's controversial rule and the organization's research on the subject. ". . . I think the first thing to understand is it's complicated and there are legitimate perspectives on all sides of these issues. Society is obviously changing and evolving, and sport has to accommodate."
The International Olympic Committee updated its rules in 2016 to allow transgender female athletes to compete against women as long as they can maintain a certain testosterone level. But USA Powerlifting has opted to follow its own more rigid guidelines, barring those competitors from the female classification.
In explaining its decision earlier this year, the organization said, "Men naturally have a larger bone structure, higher bone density, stronger connective tissue and higher muscle density than women. These traits, even with reduced levels of testosterone do not go away. While [male-to-female] may be weaker and less muscle than they once were, the biological benefits given them at birth still remain over than of a female."
'Where do we draw the line?'
A carpenter by trade and male by birth, Gregory was still living as a man then and was looking to lose weight when she started lifting four years ago. When she made the decision to transition to female last year, she began hormone therapy and legally changed her name. Lifting also had become a core part of her identity, a stabilizing force during a period of change and uncertainty. She had found a community that both accepted and celebrated her.
"In lifting, you see people of all different shapes and sizes under the bar, and it doesn't matter what you look like or how big you are, how small you are, how pretty you are," she said. "It's just about what you can do and what you might be capable of. That's such an empowering thing, and it really gave me the strength to handle everything."
She had no designs on breaking records at the time, and in fact, her lifting suffered. Gregory has been taking hormone treatments for nearly a year - estrogen along with pills that suppress testosterone - and her strength was diminished. "It was like a switch flipped," she said. She estimates she lost about 100 pounds on her squat and more than 60 pounds on the bench-press in just a few days.
"But I was inspired by other women and thought, 'Well, they don't have testosterone and they still lift a lot of weight, so why can't I?'" she said.
She started focusing on her technique, improving her leverage, tweaking her grip and stance. She visits the gym at least five days a week, lifting for 90 or so minutes before dawn. Gregory said she now has "to work so much harder to lift less," and feels her strength can't be attributed simply to testosterone levels or physique.
"Too much emphasis is put on testosterone," she said. "There are so many other factors that determine how much you lift: biomechanics, better leverages, joints, lengths of bones - where do we stop and draw the line? - socioeconomics and access to nutrition and coaching and gyms."
Her strength was increasing, and Gregory was looking forward to the April competition, a "masters" event for older lifters that was located less than an hour from her Richmond home. She double-checked the 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation's rule book and saw no mention of gender-based restrictions. The organization is a 20-year-old outfit that prides itself on drug-free competition. Gregory had a doctor's note for her hormone treatment and because her driver's license and medical paperwork all identify her as female, she hoped there would be no issue.
Bossi, the president of the 100% Raw organization, said he was alerted to Gregory's application the day before the event by the meet director. Gregory said the meet director knew her from a previous competition, though Bossi said organizers weren't certain Gregory was the same person they recognized from previous event. Bossi said he told the meet director, "Let the lifter lift, don't embarrass or insult the lifter. We'll figure it out afterward."
Gregory was the only female competing in her age group, and on the platform, Gregory performed nine legal lifts. She squatted 314 pounds, benched 233 and dead-lifted 424. Women have lifted more, but not in Gregory's age and weight class at an event organized by the 100% Raw organization.
She said fellow lifters, officials and spectators were congratulating her. She shook hands with organizers and thanked them for their kindness. Because of her winning lifts, Gregory automatically was placed into the drug-testing protocol. After an initial test, she said she was approached again.
"They said there was a problem with the sample. 'We need another one, but this time we need to watch you,'" Gregory recalled. "It was a female referee. I told her, 'This is kind of awkward. My anatomy doesn't match who I am. But if that's what you need to do, fine.'"
According to Bossi, the tests revealed Gregory had male anatomy and had improperly competed in the female division.
The organization didn't make its ruling until May 1, three days later. Trophies and medals had been passed out, competitors had gone home and news of Gregory's accomplishments had circulated widely on social media. "
After her initial Instagram post, Gregory started comments from strangers, some skeptical, some vile. "They'd tell me to go kill myself, just all these nasty things," she said. "I honestly think that the only reason they decided to take the actions they took was because of all the negative attention that it got - I mean, because there were so many people that just don't understand."
Bossi said the organization would be creating a category for transgender competitors, perhaps as early as this month, and Gregory would be reclassified there. But that's not what she wants.
"Because it segregates us," she said. "I think it's discrimination. It's not that different than having a category for tall people or for African Americans or for Hispanics."
Gregory still has her trophy and said her sense of accomplishment doesn't stem from any number or record. She said she'll continue competing and will find events that allow her to check the "female" box on the registration form.
"I can't quit," she said. "Lifting is too important to me."