Athletes come out in support of transgender fencer

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Rebecca Pretorius (second from right) after she won the sabre event at the women’s fencing tournament in Cape Town this week
Rebecca Pretorius (second from right) after she won the sabre event at the women’s fencing tournament in Cape Town this week

News that a woman who previously competed as a man participated in a national fencing competition this week has seen fencing authorities and athletes stand up in support of the athlete.

Rebecca Pretorius (19), formerly David Pretorius, participated in University Sport SA’s fencing tournament in Cape Town.

She won the sabre division and came second in the foil division.

Today, Pretorius, who is part of the University of Cape Town’s fencing team, is competing in the senior national championships of the Fencing Federation of SA (FFSA).

However, City Press’ sister publication Rapport has learnt that there were several complaints from disgruntled parents and coaches, but the FFSA said it was satisfied that Pretorius qualified to participate as a woman and that documentation supporting this has been submitted to the body.

Yesterday, 20 representatives of university teams pledged their support for Pretorius in the face of what they called a “campaign of harassment and transphobia” against her. They signed a petition to this effect, which also said that her transgender status gave her no benefit in competitions.

Before she transitioned, Pretorius, who went to Fish Hoek High School, was a formidable fencer, and represented South Africa at the Junior African Championships in Algeria.

She is also an activist for transgender rights.

Gunter Schröder, the vice-president of the FFSA, told Rapport that the FFSA did not yet have a formal policy on transgender fencers and was following the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines.

It also researched South African law and the British fencing policy on transgender athletes.

Pretorius has submitted medical documentation to the FFSA, which shows that she has been receiving hormone treatment since April last year and that her testosterone level conferred no advantage on her.

Schröder said that, for this reason, as well as to avoid discriminating against anybody based on gender, the FFSA decided to allow her to participate in the national competitions.

Charel Bester, the chairperson of University Sports SA, said they had recently sent out a newsletter warning people in the fencing community to guard against discrimination, emotional abuse, victimisation or harassment based on a person’s gender.

“Whoever complains or is going to complain must just accept it – this is the way it is,” he said about Pretorius’ participation.

Since then, there have been no complaints.

Niell Bester, a chairperson of a Gauteng fencing club, said it would be better if all athletes were informed of the situation beforehand so that nobody was caught off-guard. But that didn’t happen.

Bester said a medical officer from the FFSA ought to inform the fencing community that a transgender athlete’s testosterone level was within acceptable bounds before a competition, and called for transparency regarding the process.

Chris Mostert, chairperson of the Gauteng Fencing Association, said: “I don’t have a problem with transgender athletes. If women are going to lose against Pretorius, then they didn’t deserve to win.”

Johan van den Berg, an ophthalmologist from Centurion whose daughters are also fencers, said everything needed to be kept scientific.

“Then it’s simple. There have to be guidelines [for hormone levels] that are kept to. In the end, the transgender athletes as well as the other women have to be treated fairly,” he said.

Thobekile Moyo of the Wits fencing team said she had a fair competition against Pretorius.

“Her only slight advantage is how tall she is, but every fencer has some sort of physical advantage.”

Alex Collings, a University Sports SA referee, said Pretorius had a deep understanding of the rules and technical nuances of the foil (one of the weapons categories), which is why she stood out – not because of her physical attributes.

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