Valentina Petrillo embroiled in controversy after her bronze medal at the Paris Paralympics

The issue of trans women’s participation in sporting competitions has, for some time, been the subject of growing misinformation, which inevitably attempts to mislead the debate through inaccuracies that discriminate against individuals and the trans community in general.

Valentina Petrillo is a victim of this: a trans woman, born on 2 October 1973 in Naples, she’s the first transgender woman to participate in a women’s Paralympic competition in Italy, winning the bronze medal in the T112 category of the 400 metres at the Paralympics still underway in Paris. The Italian athlete finished third.

The victory of Petrillo, who is visually impaired, immediately sparked controversy. The ultra-Catholic, anti-abortionist association ProVita spoke of discrimination against women, pointing to Valentina as another trans athlete who would take away space from women. Even on social media, Valentina is coming to terms with the nastiness of the comments made on her account. For example: “you like to win easy? To ridicule”, “Go Valentino!”, “What a bum! Not even first among women by taking advantage of a man’s constitution!”.

An individual named Michael wrote: “You robbed a biological woman from the third place. This is not good. Not only are you doing the wrong thing against women with your selfishness, but also against trans people. Stop competing against women. Stop. It’s not OK.”

Comments also appear in English, written by Italian accounts sounding like trolls: “unfortunately and unfair that you are competing with real women. That is really crazy”.

Valentina’s story is currently at the centre of a documentary film entitled ‘5 nanomoles – The Olympic dream of a trans woman’, which had already been announced ahead of Tokyo 2020.

From an early age, Valentina dedicated herself to athletics, an activity she had to interrupt at the age of 14 due to Stargardt syndrome, a genetic mutation that inhibits the functioning of photoreceptors and causes a condition of low vision.

After her studies in Bologna, Valentina joined the Italian national five-a-side football team for the blind. At 41, she resumed sporting activity and won 11 national titles in Paralympic athletics in the men’s category.

Later, in 2019, she started her own gender transition path, choosing the name Valentina. Afterwards, she competed for the first time in the women’s category at the Italian Paralympic Track and Field Championships on 11 September 2020: this being the first time in the history of Paralympic sports in Italy that a transgender person was granted such permission.

In October 2020 Petrillo competed in a non-Paralympic event, becoming the first trans athlete to win an Italian title, and in 2021, Valentina represented Italy at the European Paralympic Championships, finishing fifth.

Since competing as a trans woman, Valentina’s career has been at the centre of constant and consistent controversy. During the Italian indoor masters championships in Ancona, a committee of 30 female athletes protested and sent a cease and desist letter to the FIDAL (Italian Athletics Federation) regarding Valentina’s access to the women’s changing rooms because of her male anatomy.

Due to threats and insults received via social media, Valentina withdrew from participating in the World Masters Athletics in Torun (Poland), March 2023, and the event organisation itself suggested that Valentina should not participate, for her own safety.

Much of the misinformation circulating about trans people and their participation in sports competitions is due to lack of knowledge of the regulatory framework. Criticism surrounding Petrillo’s participation in the World Championships in Paris also alluded to the fact that the athlete was not really allowed to compete alongside women. Petrillo, however, has the right to participate in national and international competitions in the women’s category. It is the sporting regulation that says so.

So let’s put criticism aside and leave more room for knowledge, information and sincere inclusion.

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