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Laurel Hubbard
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Laurel Hubbard and the paradox of transgender excellence

After the female weightlifter lost out on an Olympic medal, reactions of relief among the trans community highlight how their achievements are still seen as ‘fraudulent’, and how they are more likely to gain acceptance when they fail

Laurel Hubbard this week lost out on an Olympic medal in women’s weightlifting. This should be where the story begins and ends: she qualified and lost, with China’s Li Wenwen comfortably winning Gold and Emily Campbell winning the UK its first medal in the sport. But Hubbard is transgender, and our achievements are not so simple.

Hubbard has become the target of transphobic bigotry, undergoing everything from callous deadnaming to attempts to get her disqualified. Suzanne Moore is one of many high-profile journalists who believe the “inclusion of Hubbard meant the exclusion of another woman”; the implication being that “another woman” – one who isn’t transgender – is more worthy. The New Zealander’s presence was so destabilising that Moore proclaimed that “no-one really ‘won’”, despite Wenwen setting three Olympic records in that same event.

This vitriolic focus on Hubbard stems from an inability to view trans excellency as anything other than a blockage for cisgender achievements. The trans person is unable to simply be talented, it is always at the expense of others. ‘Hubbard is an Olympic weightlifter’ becomes ‘Hubbard stole the rightful place of a “biological” woman’. Our achievements are ‘fraudulent’, a void that drains the talent of others. Hubbard cannot ‘just’ be an Olympic weightlifter, she represents the ‘downfall’ of women’s sports and misogynistic biological inferiority, becoming the scapegoat of the frenzied and incomprehensible ‘gender critical’ movement. 

Passive acceptance of these beliefs, created and driven by transphobes, has ramifications on how trans people conceive themselves. Over the last few days, I’ve noticed trans people celebrating the fact that Hubbard lost. Across social media was an outpouring of relief from my community that a trans woman lost to a cisgender woman, primarily as there is schadenfreude in seeing bigots scramble to explain how Hubbard’s “male puberty” failed to win her an automatic gold, but also because people felt safer than if she succeeded.

This reaction exposes the work our activism has yet to achieve. It showed trans acceptance as predicated on the belief that we are not excellent, and that our space within public discourse is dependent on us being consistently lesser. That being accepted means not making a fuss. Losing meant our precarious existence could continue, as we have proved we pose no threat. It is this acceptance through failure that I contest. Internalising the belief of our inferiority for the sake of wider acceptance is the opposite of trans liberation, instead regurgitating the narratives of those who despise us.

The discourse of trans excellence is paradoxical: we are at once powerful and pathetic, dangerous but risible; we threaten single sex sports with superior strength yet have always been “mediocre” when we lose. It is purported that we always win, that we never win, that we should not win and that we cannot win: all are concurrently presented as true, with no acceptance of their contradictions.

Hubbard is only the most recent example of this. In 2018 Mack Beggs, a young trans man, consistently won wrestling titles in Texas state competitions – in the girl’s league. Despite campaigning to fight in the boy’s division, state law insisted on using the outdated birth certificate method. He was forced to fight cisgender girls. Lawsuits were filed to bar him from these competitions, which would have prevented him wrestling entirely, against boys and girls; as with Hubbard his wins are a loss for women before they are achievements, only to be solved by removing him entirely from all competition.

‘Within calls to “preserve women’s spaces” is the true message: the erasure of trans excellence’

Beyond sports, similar outrage was sparked in April, when Torrey Peters’ debut novel Detransition, Baby was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. In a furious viral open letter, Wild Woman Writing Club denounced the nomination as “allow(ing) male people to appropriate (women’s) honours”. The long-listing of a single book was decried as “shunting backwards” the cause of women’s rights. Instead of testosterone fuelled strength, Peters was accused of using male privilege to muscle her way into a women’s prize. The thought that Peters might be talented was not considered. In all these cases, the message is that trans people should not be noteworthy. Within calls to “preserve women’s spaces” is the true message: the erasure of trans excellence.

The Telegraph’s Oliver Brown slated Hubbard's ‘arrogance’, accusing her of believing in her “inviolable prerogative to win medals.” But to me, what Hubbard showed was that cis people have no “inviolable prerogative” to be better than trans people. Cases of trans excellence time and again highlight the fragility of the cisgender ego; despite what some say, the world does not end when trans people are good at things. Gatekeeping attempts to remove our achievements from the public consciousness in pursuit of false narratives that silence us. It is thus entirely radical to believe in trans excellence, that we are capable of being talented, and that our identities do not exclude us from competing with others. It should not put our community at risk to say as such. 

Hubbard’s performance this week was commendable, especially in the face of such hostility. But relief at her loss should not set a precedent. We deserve better than a mentality perpetuated by those who wish to see us excised from public life.