Citing inclusivity, administrators are moving ahead with policies for transgender student-athletes.
Within about a month's span in 2006, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association fielded phone calls from three school districts in different corners of the state. Each claimed to have a transgender student-athlete who wanted to participate on a high school sports team representing the gender opposite his or her biological gender. The association's swift action regarding the sensitive topic (one already addressed by the NCAA and International Olympic Committee) led to the nation's first gender identity eligibility policy for high school student-athletes. But only one other state has since followed suit.
Washington's policy, finalized in 2007 with input from representatives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations, allows student-athletes to participate "in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student's records." Some requests, however, may be subject to review by the WIAA's Gender Identity Eligibility Committee, which includes representatives from area medical, mental-health and gender-expression communities. Washington's policy also served as a template for the Colorado High School Activities Association, which adopted something similar that took effect this school year.
As recently as April, the Maine Principals' Association (which also oversees high school athletics) was feeling pressure from the Maine Human Rights Commission to develop guidelines that would have taken those in Washington and Colorado to a new level. The commission wanted permission for student-athletes to choose not only sports teams designated for the gender with which they identify, but restrooms and locker rooms, too - meaning that a male would be allowed to shower and dress in a female locker room (and vice versa) prior to undergoing sex reassignment surgery or beginning hormone replacement therapy. But for now, the commission has backed off and tabled the issue.
It's is an issue not likely to stay in the background for long, though. "Kids are becoming more comfortable saying 'I'm transgendered.' Ten years ago, no one would even say that - especially in a high school setting," says Rhonda Blanford-Green, the assistant commissioner for the CHSAA who oversees transgender issues.
"We didn't have time to hesitate when developing our policy," says Mike Colbrese, the WIAA's executive director. "When we got those three requests, we knew we needed to make sure we had something in place to include those students. Even if we never had another request for something like that again, we had to figure out a way to assist those individuals in gaining access. Education has always tried to be as inclusive as possible, and school sports programs are part of the education process."
As things turned out, only one of eventually four student-athletes seeking transgender eligibility status in Washington pursued it to the point of actually trying out for a team, Colbrese reports. That individual was a female who identified as male and wanted to play boys' basketball. "I can't guarantee that she ended up playing, because I don't know what her skill level was," Colbrese says, adding that the individual would have used the girls' locker room had she made the team. "But she did access the policy; we put the panel together and she was granted eligibility to play boys' basketball."
The CHSAA, on the other hand, has experienced two transgender eligibility requests and is expecting at least three more based on information provided by administrators at middle schools in which students claiming to be transgender are currently enrolled. "We have educated our athletic directors," Blanford-Green says. "We did a series of educational outreaches to give them a base of knowledge about what was coming, and they bought into it. Sometimes when you talk about transgender issues, people go, 'Oh, my God, we're not going to have that conversation.' But, educationally, our athletic directors are on board - whether they agree with it or not."
The transgender policies for both Washington and Colorado initially were based on the protocol for transgender Olympians and collegiate athletes. Thus, they contained language that obligated student-athletes to undergo sex reassignment surgery or begin hormone replacement therapy prior to becoming eligible to participate in sports. Local and federal human rights organizations deemed that unrealistic and age-inappropriate. "We realized that our policy would have been completely discriminatory, because no high school kid would ever be able to meet that criteria," Blanford-Green says.
At least one Colorado high school has added a gender-neutral restroom facility as a direct result of permitting a male who identifies as female to participate on the cross-country team. "They made it like a family restroom, just like you'd see at a grocery store or the mall," Blanford-Green says. "That way, it's not just 'so-and-so's bathroom.'"
That's a reasonable accommodation, acknowledges Dick Durost, the MPA's executive director. "We thought there were ways to make accommodations with separate bathrooms and locker rooms," he says, disagreeing with the Maine Human Rights Commission's desire to allow transgender students to use existing facilities. "We had concerns about the safety of students during the school day and beyond in bathrooms and locker rooms, and we also had concerns about the competitive advantage that the typical biological male might have playing female sports." He cites a decades-old federal court case involving a male field hockey player that prevents biological males from participating on female high school sports teams in Maine. (Females can join a boys' team only if there is no equivalent girls' team.) "We think that what we have in place is explicit enough," Durost says.
Most cases involving transgender student-athletes have occurred in low-profile sports with individuals in which strength and other physical characteristics have not played a significant role. "Just wait until you have a former recognized male athlete participate in a high-profile female sport, and there are some distinct male characteristics visible," says Blanford-Green, adding that the CHSAA already has developed a public relations strategy should that situation occur in Colorado. "Hopefully, we won't ever put a student-athlete in a position to become the poster child for transgender participants, but you never know."
Within two months of the WIAA finalizing its transgender eligibility policy, all of the 50 other state associations in the country requested a copy, according to Colbrese. "I knew, at that point, that they were concerned," he says.
But few, it seems, have acted on those concerns. Colbrese thinks the issue will be addressed on an as-needed basis, while Blanford-Green suggests that state associations prepare themselves, just in case. "I always think the best policies come when you're not being forced to do something," she says. "Even if a state association isn't dealing with this right now, I think they should have some type of policy in place, because it gives them direction."
At the school level, she says, tapping into local and national advocacy groups can help athletic directors and students better understand transgender issues - just as they have with gay and lesbian issues - and even arm coaches with the tools to conduct sensitivity training for their teams. "If I'm the coach of a team that a transgendered student has joined, I would ask for the permission of that student's parents to have a conversation with my student-athletes about what this means for them. I think that's critical," Blanford-Green says. "Team dynamics are critical to any kind of athletic success, anyway. And when you add something into the mix that kids don't see every day and know very little about, it can be distracting. So you should give them general information to dispel stereotypes."
That goes for coaches and athletic directors, too. "You have to put your moral feelings about this issue aside, educate yourself and be prepared to take care of student-athletes, because that's what we do," Blanford-Green says. "Until you open your mind like that, you're not going to be willing to look at the best ways to find opportunities for these kids."