Wednesday 6 September 2023

Two Olympic Transitions

NOTE: The information in this article is accurate on the date of publication. New information discovered after this date may alter or replace some of the details.

Today we learn about the third “Olympic first” associated with the lgbt community. The previous were Prince George of Greece and Denmark and George Poage. Today I feature two Olympians who possess other “firsts”, each of those firsts differing in their specific details but significant in their own way. Both can be regarded as the first transgender Olympian. They are Leonard Chalmers (1911-1990) and Léon Caurla (1926-2002). Both competed an identified as females before undergoing transgender surgery.

First of all, let’s differentiate their respective “firsts”. Leonard Chalmers is the first Olympian to compete (Berlin 1936) who became transgender (c.1961), while Léon Caurla is the first Olympian (London 1948) to have surgery (1950). I hope that makes sense.

Another thing they have in common is that they did not actually compete in the games they attended. Both were listed as members of their respective National Olympic Committees, and both were listed as entrants in their events, but are recorded as non-starters. This may be for several reasons. Those early Olympics may not have been so formal with regards to entries and starters. There are many athletes listed who also did not start their listed event, though their names appear in official Olympic records (Léon was one of 6 non-starters recorded in his event). Another reason is that they were what we now refer to as “alternates”, athletes who are designated to fill in for another in cases of illness. Until 1992 all alternates were listed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and were regarded as full Olympians. Since 1992, however, the IOC have not regarded alternates as Olympians. This is where I and many Olympic historians chose to differ. In my lists of lgbt+ Olympians I include all lgbt+ alternate athletes.

Let’s look more closely first at Leonard Chalmers. He was born biological female and baptised Lilian Florence Elizabeth Chalmers. Confusion about his actual date of birth is resolved on his birth certificate and the 1939 Register of England and Wales (a national census taken to assist in the distribution of ID cards during the war) which give his birthdate as 5th December 1911. Wikipedia (as of today) gives the wrong date. I will use the female pronoun as used by both Lilian and Léon during their athletic careers.

Lilian Chalmers’ prowess on the track seems to have begun in 1932. The first real record of Lilian as a member of an international English team is at the 2nd British Empire Games (retrospectively referred to as the 2nd Commonwealth Games) in London in 1934. Lilian won the bronze medal in the women’s 100 metres sprint.

Lilian’s next major event was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, being listed as an entrant in the women’s 4x100 metres relay. As mentioned above she was a non-starter in this event. The team won the silver medal. The claim that I have seen online that Lilian’s non-start was due to criticism from other female athletes about her gender is not substantiated.

In 1937 Lilian became the British women’s 200 metres champion. This was repeated in the 1939 championship, to which she added the 400 metres title. Also in 1939 she competed at the Internationale Stadionfest (ISTAF Berlin) in the stadium that had hosted the 1936 Olympics. A few weeks later war was declared in Germany.

During Lilian’s athletic career she worked as a machinist in Coomer’s Cardboard Box factory in Portsmouth. Her last known race was in 1951. Sometime after that she moved to London, and in 1961 Lilian underwent gender surgery and adopted the name Leonard on 21st December of that year. Leonard Chalmers died from a stroke in 1990.

Although Leonard was the first transgender athlete known to attend the Olympics he was not the first to undergo reassignment surgery. As mentioned, that distinction currently belongs to Léon Caurla. It should be pointed out that, in all probability, Léon Caurla was intersex.

Léon was born in the French town of Etain and was assigned female at birth. He was baptised Léa. Her first major competition was the 1946 European Athletics Championships in Oslo. She won a bronze medal in the 200 metres. In the first heat she was racing against the Polish sprinter Stanisława Walasiewicz (later known as Stella Walsh), a fellow intersex athlete.

On the same day as winning her bonze medal Léa won a silver medal as part of the 4x100 metres relay team. Stanisława Walasiewicz also competed in this event (her team came last). On Léa’s team was Claire Brésolles. Shortly after the Oslo championships Claire transitioned and adopted the name Pierre. He does not appear in any Olympic records. It is claimed on Wikipedia that Léa and Claire were lovers. This is not true.

In 1948 Lea was listed as an entrant in the women’s 200 metres at the London Olympics. As with Lilian Chalmers in 1936, Lea may have been an alternate athlete. But there could be another reason.

Gender verification in sport has a long and complicated evolution and history. In 1946 the International Amateur Athletics Federation (now known as World Athletics) introduced regulations requiring all athletes competing in female categories to provide a medical certificate before each competition verifying their female gender before being allowed to compete. Léa must have provided one in 1946 in order to compete at the European Championships. However, moving two years on to the Olympics and a physical examination had become mandatory. It is recorded that Léa refused to take this physical examination. The outcome was certain. Léa was barred from the French athletics federation and from the Olympics. I’m still trying to ascertain the date this happened. This must have been after the Olympics or Léa would have been disqualified from entering, and her name would never have appeared in official records.

It was at this time that Lea decided to live as a man and undergo surgery. In late 1950 the surgery took place, and Léa emerged as Léon, revealing his transition to the press in March 1952.

Details of Léon Caurla’s life after this are scarce. We know that he joined the French Air Force at some stage, and that he married and had children. By the 1980s he had returned to his hometown of Etain, where he had several jobs – a travelling salesman, owner of a florist shop, and he also rented out property.

While we cannot say with certainty that Léon Caurla was the first transgender Olympian, bearing in mind he was probably intersex, we can say that Leonard Chalmers was the first Olympian who definitely was, even though he wasn’t the first to have surgery.

With transgender issues being even more of an issue in sport than ever before we wait to see if and when transgender athletes will ever compete at the Olympics in the future.

My opinion doesn’t count for anything, but I think it is time for sport to drop its current method of scoring results. Athletic results already take into account wind speed and altitude, so, if transgender athletes have an alleged unfair advantage, why can’t someone come up with a formula that takes this into account. Let transgender athletes compete in whatever gender category they wish. Applying the formula would ensure a fairer result, even if it means finishing first and being declared third, or whatever. In the future, if it is decided that transgender athletes should never have been subjected to the formula, that formula can be removed retrospectively. The athletes not subject to the application of the formula retain their positions and medals, but if that then means there are two gold medallists, fine. Its an idea that needs a lot more work put into it.

We can only hope that sports organising bodies, transgender athletes, and transgender critics can work together for once and come up with a solution that pleases everyone.

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