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Brussels street named after pro cyclist who changed gender
Belgian cyclist Elvire De Bruyn was world champion in road racing in 1934 and 1936. So why is the Brussels street named in her honour being called Rue Willy De Bruyn? Because after her professional career in women’s cycling, De Bruyn officially changed her gender – possibly the first in Belgium to do so legally.
That much is known for certain, but less is known about the details of De Bruyn’s transition. According to Belgian cycling journalist Brecht Castel, De Bruyn was likely intersexed. People who are born intersexed have variations in sex-determining characteristics.
“Elvire De Bruyn was born at the beginning of the First World War,” Castel told Radio 1. “She grew up in Erembodegem, where her parents ran a café. Rumours began very quickly that De Bruyn was partially a boy.”
As Belgian champion – by far – De Bruyn was well known in the cycling circuit and so her change of gender was a source of media attention. In 1937 “she appeared before a court in Oudenaarde, where her gender was officially changed. Her birth certificate was even altered. She was known as Willy from there on out.”
While De Bruyn is often referred to as transgender, Castel says that’s probably not the case. According to newspaper reports, she went to a doctor and had her gender as male confirmed.
“In those days, nobody talked about intersexuality; it was either man or woman. Newspaper articles at the time are always written from the perspective of man or woman, but the story of Willy is much more nuanced than that.”
In any case, De Bruyne won her races handily, far ahead of the other women. “Elvire probably had more testosterone than the other women,” says Castel. “It was, in any case, the reason she gave for admitting that she felt more like a man than a woman.
Eventually, De Bruyne married, and he and his wife ran a café in Brussels’ northern district. “Though it was really more of a house of ill repute,” notes Castel.
The new Rue Willy De Bruyn is a section of Allée verte in the canal district. The name has been changed because of the construction of new buildings, which posed a challenge to new address numbers in the street.
Photo: Thierry Roge/BELGA