Transgender boys and girls in high schools across New York soon could find it easier to compete on either the boys or girls teams, whichever aligns with their gender identity.
Guidelines to be voted on next week — setting out procedures for a biological male who transitions to female to try out for and play on a girls team and vice versa — ask schools to obtain minimal documentation on a student’s gender identity. A note from a parent, guardian or medical professional will do.
New York is by no means the first state to take action, but the Empire State would be among the most inclusive, experts said.
“It will give the schools a guideline as opposed to having a situation present itself and saying, ‘Wow. What do we do here?’” Arlington High School Athletic Director Dave Goddard told the Poughkeepsie Journal.
However, Robert Zayas, executive director for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, made clear the guidelines are “by no means a mandated requirement.” The flexibility of the guidelines is a source of concern for some transgender rights activists.
Thirty-seven states have thus far adopted some form of transgender inclusion policy for athletics. The Athletic Association’s Central Committee meets July 28-30 in Tarrytown. The guidelines require notice to the state only if accommodations are needed.
Standard eligibility requirements would apply. Decisions on that and accommodations would be left up to individual schools or districts, with appeals to the state education commissioner. Statewide, there currently are 10 or 12 transgender student-athletes known to high school officials, Zayas said.
There are about 80 known transgender people in the mid-Hudson Valley region, according to the Mid-Hudson Valley Transgender Association, which hosts support group meetings each month. Estimating the transgender population is difficult, as the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask about gender identity. But it is precisely because they are apparently few in number that they are both targeted for discrimination and overlooked when it comes to inclusion, experts said.
There have been no known transgender student-athletes in Sections 1 or 9, the geographic regions in which mid-Hudson Valley schools compete. However, area administrators said there would be no roadblocks for any future transgender athletes, given the suggested guidelines and existing law.
“It’s not common, but I think we’ll see more transgender athletes going forward because society is more accepting now than 20 or 30 years ago,” Pawling High School Athletic Director John Bellucci said. “It would be a complicated matter, but we would try our best to find out what needs to be done to accommodate that student-athlete and go from there.”
In New York, athletes attempting to a join a team of the opposite gender are subject to mixed-competition guidelines, which include a gauge of his or her physical abilities. Essentially, the athlete must prove that he or she won’t endanger himself or herself in competition or have an unfair physical advantage.
This does not apply to transgender athletes.
According to Section 9 executive director Gregory Ransom, transgender athletes will not be required to take an athletic assessment test to be deemed eligible to join a team. Representatives from Section 1 were unavailable for comment.
“Once it has been determined what gender the individual identifies as, (he or she will) be able to try out for that sport and be judged based on (his or her) athletic talents,” Goddard said. “It’s not mixed competition.”
An assessment test would likely be prohibited by the Dignity for All Students Act, Goddard said. Put into effect in 2012, the law, among other things, forbids discrimination against students by school employees. It includes discrimination based on “a person’s actual or perceived gender.”
Sports has struggled with the issue of inclusion since Renee Richards, a professional tennis player and biological male, underwent sex reassignment surgery and successfully sued the United States Tennis Association after being denied entry to the 1976 U.S. Open as a woman. Attention and awareness has intensified around Caitlyn Jenner and her public transition in recent months. The 65-year-old won the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics as Bruce Jenner.
There are certain to be questions. How will accommodations be made? What is appropriate? Are there legitimate safety concerns when it comes to contact sports? Could there be situations of athletic advantage, and how should those be addressed?
Goddard and Ransom acknowledged that there could be resistance from some athletes or even parents opposed to the policies. “But that’s why you have rules,” Ransom said. “Our section will administer the policy as fairly as we possibly can. People may not agree, but as long as we’re following the rules, they’ll have to live with that.”
Hypothetically, under the proposed guidelines, a biological male student who identifies as female could be eligible to join a girls team, even if there is a decided advantage in size or strength. Goddard said the primary responsibility of administrators and faculty is the education and social development of students, which takes precedence over athletics.
“That athlete is still an individual who would be considered female and we would protect (her) rights,” Goddard said. “I can understand opposition. But I don’t think that should outweigh an individual’s right to experience athletics in the gender they identify with. Not everyone will agree, but hopefully there will be understanding.”
Changing mindsets regarding gender identity in high school sports embroiled Minnesota in a months-long divisive debate last year during which opponents ran full-page ads in local newspapers, suggesting it might be the end of girls sports and asking: “A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are you OK with that?”
The Minnesota State High School League, on an 18-1 vote, nevertheless adopted a policy in December similar to what is proposed in New York. Thus far, the state has not had a single openly transgender high school athlete, said David Stead, the league’s executive director.
Other states, like Oklahoma and Oregon, require biologically male students identifying as female to have completed some period of hormonal therapy. Six states have policies requiring hormone use, surgery and/or a change in the student’s birth certificate, regulations that Chris Mosier, founder of TransAthlete.com, considers discriminatory.
But the fact that New York will see accommodations made on a school-by-school basis, as Zayas explained, remains a concern for Mosier, as the application of the guidelines, and thus the access, is certain to be uneven.
While saying New York’s proposal could be one of the more inclusive in the nation, Mosier had reservations about the non-binding nature of the guidelines: “It still puts students at risk of being unable to participate based on their school district.
“It’s not enough for us to pass a policy or recommendations without thinking through what the experience will be like for transgender students who go through the process to play sports consistent with their gender identity,” Mosier said. “We need to be thinking about facilities access, team uniforms, language used by coaches and players, and providing education to the school community around transgender identity.”
State officials said the guidelines are purposefully general, meant to be flexible, a recognition of the inherent complexities with students in varying stages of transition and how they identify, different sports presenting a host of unique issues, and the disparity in facilities that can exist across districts.
Muted praise came from the New York Civil Liberties Union, whose Dignity for All? report last month documented a grim outlook for transgender students in New York schools.
“The new guidelines … are a welcome step forward for the many transgender youth who have been outright prohibited from playing on sports teams just for being who they are,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in an emailed statement. But she raised concern that “requiring transgender students to submit documentation confirming their gender identity will discourage many students from playing sports, denying them important ties to their school communities.”