Track

Transgender track athlete makes history as controversy swirls around her

Haines (Alaska) senior sprinter Nattaphon “Ice” Wangyot made history at Alaska’s state track meet, becoming the first transgender student-athlete to compete individually for a high school state championship, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. As you might expect with any progressively historical event, it did not come without controversy.

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Alaska Family Action president Jim Minnery and a dozen supporters of his conservative group gathered outside the state track meet to protest an 18-year-old who was trying to live her life, according to multiple local media reports.

“We are here today as a voice from the community to ensure that female athletes are not denied the playing opportunities and scholarships otherwise available to them and to make the playing field even again,” Minnery said during a press conference at the state meet, per the Alaska Dispatch News. “… Allowing students to play on teams of the opposite sex disproportionately impacts female students, who will lose spots on track, soccer and volleyball teams to male students who identify as female.”

Despite Minnery’s protests, Wangyot, a Thai native who was born male and identifies as female, qualified and competed in the Class 3A girls’ sprints at the state meet, capturing third place in the 200-meter dash (27.3) and fifth in the 100 (13.36). She also played for the girls volleyball and basketball teams at Haines during her senior year.

Haines (Alaska) senior sprinter Nattaphon Wangyot became the first transgender student to run in Alaska's state meet. (KTVA-TV)

Haines (Alaska) senior sprinter Nattaphon Wangyot became the first transgender student to run in Alaska’s state meet. (Screengrab, KTVA-TV)

However, Fairbanks (Alaska) Hutchinson junior Saskia Harrison, whose time of 14.11 seconds in the 100 left her outside the 16-competitor cut for the Class 1A-2A-3A field, took issue with Wangyot’s presence in the event.

“I’m glad that this person is comfortable with who they are and they’re able to be happy with who they are,” she told KTVA-TV, “but competitively I don’t think it’s completely 100 percent fair.”

The Alaska School Activities Association ruled in May 2015 that the decision on a transgender student-athlete’s eligibility rests with each individual school district. So, when Wangyot approached her school’s administration prior to the fall volleyball season, Haines principal Rene Martin worked with the staff to develop a formal policy that would allow her to participate, regardless of whether anyone at the school supported Minnery’s conservative ideals, according to the Chilkat Daily News.

“Everybody doesn’t understand, and that’s OK,” Martin told the paper. “But you still have to show respect, and we work together and we talk about things and we try to make it respectful for everybody.”

Yet, Minnery waited an entire year — after the subject of which bathroom a transgender person can use became a national debate and before a teenager participated in the final event of her high school athletic career — to stir up controversy outside a high school track meet. On May 24, just days before the state track meet, Minnery joined 21 other leaders of conservative groups — most of which use the term “family” in their titles — in sending a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid as well as Representatives Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Pelosi.

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(Speaking of family, Wangyot’s mother, Tukta Panyawong, told the Chilkat Daily News, “You don’t have to be afraid. If you are transgender, you should be yourself. There’s nothing wrong. You’re still human. You’re a good person.”)

“As you are aware, executive agencies are not permitted to redefine a federal statute,” said the letter opposing President Obama’s stance on human rights. “Rather, legislative power is vested in theLegislative Branch. The Administration is clearly attempting to bypass the legislative process and ignore the original legislative intent, which did not intend to encompass claims of discrimination based on gender identity. Tellingly, the text of Title IX itself explicitly allows educational institutions to maintain ‘separate living facilities for the different sexes,’ indicating binary, biological sex. Separating the sexes based on legitimate anatomical and biological differences — especially in the context of bathrooms, locker rooms and showers — has always been viewed as consistent with Title IX and other federal nondiscrimination statutes.”

For the record, Wangyot uses a single-occupancy bathroom and showers alone as a coach stands guard, according to the Chilkat Valley News. The letter did not address how the inclusion of transgender student-athletes in high school athletics violates Title IX if teens who are born female and identify as male are also eligible to compete on boys’ teams.

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As for any competitive edge she might gain from being born male — “Genetically a guy has more muscle mass than a girl,” one Class 4A competitor told the Alaska Dispatch News, “and if he’s racing against a girl, he may have an advantage” — Wangyot told reporters she takes female hormones and other drugs to suppress testosterone levels.

“The people who are going to think, ‘It’s not fair to play with the boys’ — well, you don’t know that. It’s not easy,” she told the Chilkat Valley News. “It’s not like I wake up and ‘OK, I’m a girl right now.'”

Which is why Wangyot decided to run this year — to provide an example for other transgender students interested in sports — and why Haines High School’s administration stood behind the teen in her quest to make Alaska history.