Valentina Petrillo, set to become the first transgender Paralympian to compete in an official women’s event on Friday, has played down controversy over whether trans athletes have an unfair advantage, saying hormone therapy has battered her performance.
The Italian sprinter, who competed in men’s races before transitioning in 2019, will take to the starting blocks of the women’s 100-, 200- and 400-metre competitions at the Italian Paralympic Athletics Championships.
Her participation in Jesolo is a first for Paralympic sports and athletics, according to the Italian Federation of Paralympic and Experimental Sports (FISPES), and will likely fuel debate on the fairness of trans athletes competing in women’s sports.
“I understand the doubts but I do not think I have an advantage… My performances have dropped mercilessly,” Petrillo, who is visually impaired, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
She said she was now about 1.5 seconds slower on the 200 metres – her favourite discipline – than before transitioning.
Between 2016 and 2018, Petrillo won 11 national men titles.
“I’ve not undergone hormone therapy… to win. I’ve done it for myself,” said the 46-year-old, who is married to a woman and has two children.
“I have wanted this all my life … Finally I am in the right place, among women.”
The International Olympic Committee’s guidelines issued in 2015, and followed by FISPES, allow any trans athlete to compete in women’s races provided their testosterone levels remain low enough for a year.
Trans athletes are not required to gain legal recognition of their gender identity, nor undergo anatomical surgery to be eligible to compete.
But many leading sportswomen have condemned their inclusion, arguing that they have greater muscle density, bone strength, and lung capacity.
As a child, Petrillo said she used to wear nail polish, and try on her mother’s clothes, but growing up she kept her gender identity secret for fear of social rejection.
“In 2018, I said ‘enough’. I could no longer go on pretending and competing among men, it had become unsustainable,” she said.
That kicked off a lengthy legal and bureaucratic process to be allowed to compete in women’s events, which finally bore fruit earlier this year, when FISPES gave her the green light to run in Jesolo.
“Competing is my life, I love the adrenaline of an official run,” she said by phone.
“For those like me who can’t see well and can’t drive, running means freedom. My legs are my car.”
Petrillo, who has not undergone gender reassignment surgery or amended her gender on identity documents, said she hoped her story could be of example for young LGBT+ people struggling with their identity.
“We all have the right to be happy,” she said. “And if I made it everyone can.”
In the short term, happiness for her would be to record a time that would qualify her for next year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“I’d like to be talked about for my sporting results rather than for who I am,” she said.
“I hope to win the race, shake hands with the other girls on the podium and receive a beautiful bouquet of flowers.”
-Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi – Thomson Reuters Foundation