Willy De Bruyn: A Trailblazer in Transgender Sports History

Born 109 years ago, Willy De Bruyn, once known as Elvira, was a forgotten pioneer in the sports world. Despite not being as widely recognized as Merckx or De Vlaeminck, De Bruyn left a significant mark on social history rather than sports history.

Originally born as Elvira in 1914, De Bruyn faced ridicule in her East Flemish village due to her physical differences. Turning to cycling, she excelled among women, becoming an unofficial world champion in 1934 and repeating the victory two years later.

Willy De Bruyn

Unsatisfied with women's cycling, De Bruyn sought to compete with men. Facing an initial rejection to change her gender, it wasn't until 1937 that she obtained approval based on medical certificates and documentation. At 23, Elvira became Willy.

Transitioning to the men's peloton, Willy faced limited success and eventually shifted focus to running a Brussels café. Marrying a woman, Willy passed away at 75 in relative anonymity, receiving a city-funded funeral.

Only recently gaining recognition as a pioneer, a Brussels street was named after Willy in 2019. In a world currently grappling with discussions around gender and identity in sports, De Bruyn's story stands out as an early example of sporting emancipation.

Willy De Bruyn street in Brussels

"Willy De Bruyn is a role model for being one of the first intersex individuals to change gender at their own request," says Bieke Purnelle, director of the knowledge center for Gender and Feminism Rosa. De Bruyn faced financial challenges and legal battles during a time when discussions around intersex and gender were derogatory.

In today's discussions, the focus has shifted to trans individuals, distinct from intersex. Scientific debates continue regarding the advantages of sports based on hormone production during puberty. De Bruyn's story highlights the evolving understanding of gender and its role in sports, emphasizing the need for continued research.