By Liz Massey, January 2017 Issue.
From the time she was a child, cycling always offered Jillian Bearden a sense of freedom – a way to feel independent and powerful. As she grew up, and realized the male gender she’d been assigned at birth didn’t match how she felt, cycling offered a powerful escape from gender dysphoria and other difficult life situations.
“Cycling has always been a safe spot for me. Colorado Springs, where I grew up, had lots of mountain biking trails, so I was always out in the woods,” Bearden, 36, said. “By my mid-20s, I turned to cycling to cope. I was hiding behind the bike, but it was also a safe place for me to work things out on the trail.”
Cycling was also a place for Bearden to make a difference.
When competing as a male, before transitioning in 2014, she moved up from a Category 4 mountain biker to a Category 1 – the final category before a cyclist can go pro under USA Cycling (USAC) rules.
In the past two years, as her life path has diverged from the one society might have originally expected for her, Bearden has continued to make a difference, emerging as a trailblazer.
Bearden’s pre-transition success and connections as a cyclist opened the door to work closely with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and USAC to clarify competition guidelines for post-transition transgender female athletes. She’s also become an advocate for transgender females competing in cycling events, which led her to enter the El Tour de Tucson, a 106-mile race that skirts the perimeter of southern Arizona’s Old Pueblo on Nov. 19, 2016.
Competing in the event as part of “Team SAGA,” a team sponsored by the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (sagatucson.org), Bearden won her first-ever victory as a female racer, and brought new visibility to the issue of transgender women competing on an equal basis with cisgender female athletes.
The Long Road to Authenticity
Bearden said she had considered transitioning in her early 20s, but societal disapproval kept her from exploring that option further. Cycling offered some relief from gender dysphoria, she said,
normalizing such things as wearing tight-fitting cycling clothes and shaving her legs.
After using the sport as a tool for coping with various life stressors, she said that she became intrigued by the cycling road and mountain bike races. As time went on, Bearden married a woman, started a family and maintained a full-time job, but she was still able to dedicate much of her free time to cycling. Beyond becoming an elite Category 1 mountain biker, she also worked as a licensed coach before her transition, overseeing the progress of the Front Rangers Junior Cycling team.
But by the time Bearden reached her mid-30s, even cycling could not quell her gender struggles, and she made the decision to transition in 2014. For nearly a year after she began her transition process, she did no racing as a cyclist, although she did participate in several running races and continued to train on her bike.
Then, in late 2015, the IOC shook up the athletic world by issuing a statement on the eligibility of transgender female athletes to compete at the Olympic level. Bearden knew that USAC was under the umbrella of the IOC, so the organization would eventually take up the issue as it pertained to the women’s category in cycling events.
April 2016 marked one year of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for Bearden, which is also the requirement for eligibility, and she was ready to return to competitive cycling.
“I needed to find a racing category where I could be competitive [as a woman], and yet not win every event,” she said. “I reached out to USAC and started to build a dialog with them.”
Testing Her Own Limits
Bearden spoke with several experts associated with the IOC, including medical physicist Joanna Harper, and essentially became a case study for them. Because she was tested regularly as a male cyclist before her transition, she was able to offer “before and after” evidence of her performance times and blood work to verify the long-held thesis by transgender supporters that when an athlete identified as male early in life confirms her female gender and receives standard hormonal treatment, she will see a change in physical performance that puts her in a similar competitive range with cisgender female athletes.
“Having worked as a coach with junior cyclists, I knew where my abilities lay,” she said. “I told them ‘I believe I’m a Category 2 female cyclist now.’”
Throughout the rest of 2016, Bearden submitted blood work and her finishing times in the USAC races in which she competed. She noted that, according to the results, her power output has dropped approximately 11 percent from her baseline when competing as a male – the same differential as has been found between cisgender male and cisgender female athletes.
Another significant finding has been that Bearden has seen her testosterone level drop to a stable level since starting HRT.
“That shows that it’s possible to suppress testosterone to a desired level and keep it there,” she said. “That counters the argument that trans female athletes can’t hold a T level.”
Gearing Up for Trans Visibility
Because she was the only out transgender female athlete that she knew of in the Denver area, Bearden said that some reporters who had covered her athletic exploits as a male were interested in writing about her transition in a supportive light. As a result, that media coverage helped her connect with other transgender athletes throughout the country.
In June 2016, she co-founded the Transnational Women’s Cycling Team and immediately went to work securing team sponsors and putting the team’s policies down in writing. The team’s official website (tnwcteam.com) and social media followed thereafter.
“Media led to [interest and] participation, it was kind of a grassroots thing.” Bearden said, adding that her efforts in establishing this team have opened doors for her to connect with transgender women cyclists throughout the U.S. and internationally. “We have the athletic thing and the transition thing to talk about.”
As a direct result of this network Bearden has established, she was invited to participate in the El Tour de Tucson on Team SAGA.
Pedal to the Mettle
According to Claire Swinford, a board member for SAGA, local transgender female cyclist Anna Lisk suggested that the organization sponsor a team for the race. As part of the team-building process, Bearden’s name came up, and it became clear that inviting her to participate as part of the team fit well with the organization’s strategy.
“The more I read about the work [Jillian] was doing with USA Cycling and the IOC, the more I realized that she was truly driving a huge change in competitive sport on behalf of the trans community,” Swinford said. “As an activist, her dedication to creating positive change really impressed me … Since we were trying to create visibility for the trans community with this event, it was only logical to invite the most visible trans woman in the field.”
By the time of the El Tour de Tucson race, Bearden had experienced a wide range of finishes since her transition.
Never having a set expectation going into a race for how she would do was one of the lessons Bearden had learned throughout her years competing in the sport. Heading to Tucson, she said she had hoped to make the top 10, but nothing truly prepared her for being neck and neck with the one of the top female racers, Anna Sparks, going into the last half-mile.
“I could see that Anna was important as the race progressed, and I positioned myself to her right. I wasn’t boxed in by other racers, so I started to hit it and accelerate,” Bearden said. “Someone yelled ‘up, up, up’ at her to let her know I was coming … but a lot of things came together for me. I came out ahead by less than half a tire length. That’s maybe one pedal stroke.”
Because the El Tour de Tucson is not a sanctioned USAC race, the win won’t help Bearden move up to Category 1 as a female racer, but the victory sent a shock wave through both the cycling and the transgender communities.
While Bearden said she has had to deal with some negative articles and social media comments from anti-trans critics, she’s been greatly encouraged by the number of supportive people she heard from.
“Many, many people reached out in support after the Tucson victory,” she said. “I heard from several trans women who had not begun their transition because they were afraid of losing their connection to their bike, but who now feel OK to begin their transition.”
Making a Place for Everyone
While Bearden raced as part of Naked Women’s Racing throughout 2016, 100 percent of her focus has shifted to the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team for 2017. In addition to training, attaining 501(c)3 status, conducting board meetings, coordinating a team camp at Buffalo Lodge Bicycle Resort in Colorado Springs and team races will be Bearden’s focus in the year ahead.
“I definitely want to move up to Category 1; that will happen, maybe this season,” she said.
Additionally, she plans to continue providing data for the IOC and USAC, both to help herself and other transgender athletes.
“I’m happy to help,” she said. “I’m a giver and a helper.”
While Bearden said there had been numerous physical and mental adjustments she had to make to be successful as a cyclist once she had confirmed her gender, she didn’t hesitate to recommend competing openly as a transgender person to others.
“Don’t hesitate for a second – it’s your life, you have to live it. The satisfaction it can bring is unreal,” she said. “It’s important for us to be who we are.”
According to Swinford, who began cycling to participate with Team SAGA and was involved in powerlifting before transitioning, encountering Bearden and the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team had provided a constant source of inspiration.
Swinford also said the experiences with the El Tour de Tucson demonstrated that transgender individuals should expect to be able to enjoy athletic competition after transitioning.
“Get out there and do it! Transition does not mean we have to give up the things we love,” Swinford said. “If you love a sport, or anything really, then that is a part of you, and not your gender. There’s a place for all of it, and if not, we’ll make that place.”
Trans National Women’s Cycling Team
Founded in June 2016, but just recently launched for 2017 racing, the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team is the first transgender sports team in the world.
The team currently has 15 cyclists representing various states from coast-to-coast and, according to Bearden, has “great sponsorship” for being in only its first year.
“The work I have done with the IOC and USAC have opened up doors for a team like this,” Bearden said, adding that this is easily the most controversial sports team in the world at this time. “This is an all-women transgender club and race team we have also partnered up with Trans Lifeline to help give back and save lives!”
For more information on the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team, visit tnwcteam.com or look for them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.