Michelle Dumaresq: Heaven Can Wait
Compassion was not my initial response to the news that a transgender mountain biker was creating a stir in Canada. My initial response was gratitude, as in, Thank you, God, for the easiest column I will write this year. Sure, there would be a few gray areas with pronouns. But here was a column whose kicker practically composed itself. Whether you agree with her or not, you have to admit: What she did took balls.
After an hour on the phone with Michelle (ne Michael) Dumaresq, however, I came away enlightened and sympathetic. I came away with a deeper respect for Dumaresq, some of whose opponents want her banned from competition. It's not fair, they say, inadvertently echoing what Dumaresq used to say to herself in her most despairing moments: Why me? It isn't fair!
"Your gender identity comes from your brain, and it's pretty overpowering," she says. "There were times in high school when I was just really confused. I'd ask myself, 'What is going on? I'm the captain of the damn hockey team!'"
Around the time she was five, says the 32-year-old Vancouver native, she was dimly aware that "something wasn't right." Those feelings of confusion returned when she was 10 or 11, intensifying with the onset of adolescence. "I didn't know what a transgendered person was," she says. "I just knew there was a voice inside of me saying, 'Hey, try this on!'
"You either go for help or you hide it. I chose to get help."
At 18 she came out to her closest friends. Four years later she joined a support group. She went on a regimen of hormones and psychotherapy and underwent a "real-life test," in which she lived as a woman for two years. In 1996 she underwent the three-hour operation from which there could be no return.
An avid athlete all her life, Dumaresq has been riding mountain bikes for 14 years. Only last year, however, did she take up competitive downhill. After just three races her license was suspended by the sport's international governing body, the UCI, which was responding to complaints that she had an unfair physical advantage. After reviewing her case over the winter, the UCI reinstated her in April. Dumaresq won her country's Canada Cup series, thus qualifying for a spot on the national team that competed in the recent world championships in Austria. "That's when the s--- hit the fan," she says.
She became a national story in Canada. Two of her teammates, Sylvie Allen and Cassandra Boon, argued that she shouldn't be allowed to compete. Their surreal suggestion, that Dumaresq compete in a separate transgender category, was rejected out of hand by Pierre Hutsebaut, executive director of the Canadian Cycling Association. "She is legally a woman," he said.
She is hormonally a woman too, says Dumaresq, who used to be 6 feet, 210 pounds but who now goes 5'912", 180. She points out that she has lost 30% of her muscle mass since she started taking female hormones and probably has less testosterone in her body than most of her opponents. That didn't stop world champion Anne-Caroline Chausson of France from criticizing her in Austria. "It's not fair," Chausson, who won her 10th world title, said to her. (Dumaresq placed 24th.) "You are stronger."
"You don't know that," said Dumaresq. "You're just guessing."
Not everyone gave her such a frosty reception. "Goddam!" said U.S. downhiller Missy Giove, who came in third in Austria. "If you're here, it must be 2002!
"I stand for acceptance and open-mindedness," continued the voluble Missile, who is gay. "If she says she doesn't have a competitive advantage, then I believe her."
Rather than whisper behind her back, Giove peppered Dumaresq with questions. "You'll have to excuse my ignorance," Giove said at one point. "I don't meet a lot of transsexuals in my line of work."
Dumaresq is happy to tell her story. She wants to educate people on transgender issues, even as she herself makes new discoveries. She had no idea, for instance, that the hormones she takes would affect the way she thinks. But that has happened, she insists. On a recent training ride she and some guy friends came across a new jump on one of their regular trails. While the four guys in front of her took the jump without hesitation, Dumaresq got off her bike, then had this exchange with the guy behind her:
"What are you doing?" the guy asked.
"Checking out the landing."