Meet 17-year-old Jane Doe. She was born John Doe, but has spent the last dozen years of her life identifying as a female. As is typical with transgender kids, Jane is from a non-abusive home, has no criminal record nor any addictions, ranked in the top-10 of her class, is a stand-out athlete, and will be attending an elite university this fall. The only psychological scars Jane carries have come from students and teachers who’ve bullied her. Plain and simple, she would have had a typical school experience if not for the people who found her objectionable.
The worst moment for Jane came when parents of a track teammate attended a meet with a sign that read “NO BOYS ON GIRLS TEAMS”. It’s an easy sign to hold, really, considering 80% of people hold a similar sentiment. But the tyranny of the majority worries that Thomas Jefferson wrote about are for another discussion. It’s still amazing that our Founding Fathers foresaw the need for the Bill of Rights to make certain that the minorities of our society would not be prayed upon by the majority. Anyway …
Jane is not big or muscular, but she is fast in her three events. And it’s rather astonishing that she received All-Conference recognition considering the discrimination she faced on a daily basis. Multiple teachers in her high school career called her names such as freak and fagboy. Adult, professional educators. In one class, she regularly received C’s and D’s on subjectively graded papers, while acing every test, and eventually graduating with a weighted final GPA over 100. It was a class in which she overheard the teacher refer to Jane as the “chick with a dick.” She quietly filed away her C papers and ran miles and miles on the track.
On the PIAA.org website’s sportsmanship page is highlighted this quote: “Sportsmanship is probably the clearest and most popular expression of morals. Sportsmanship is a thing of the spirit. It is timeless and endless, and we should strive to make it universal to all races, creeds, and walks of life.” – The Discovery of Morals
That motto sits well with the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
High school sports are crucial in developing positive self-esteem and a connection to the school and community, as well as a deterrent to the use of alcohol, drugs, and other unhealthy activities. Ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of school sports experiences complements the academic mission of schools.
There are four major concerns when it comes to transgender girls playing on girls teams.
* Transgender girls are really male despite their affirmed gender identity as a girl.
* Non-transgender boys will pretend to be girls to win championships or get more playing time on girls teams.
* Transgender girls pose a safety risk for non-transgender girls in some sports such as basketball or field hockey.
* Transgender girls have a competitive advantage over non-transgender girls.
It is important for policy-makers to understand that transgender girls are not boys. Their gender identity as girls is as deep-seated as the gender identity of non-transgender girls. The belief that transgender girls are not “real” girls is sometimes expressed as a concern that allowing transgender girls to compete on girls teams displaces opportunities for “real” girls.
The fear that non-transgender boys will pretend to be girls in order to dominate girls teams has never been an issue at any level of sport. Well-developed policies require that students who identify as transgender demonstrate a consistent female gender identity in everyday life verified by parents or health-care professionals. This requirement eliminates the unlikely situation where a boy pretends to be a girl in order to play on a girls team.
Some coaches and parents express concerns that allowing transgender girls to participate on girls teams will pose a safety risk for non-transgender girls. This concern is based on an assumption that transgender girls are bigger, stronger and unable to exercise adequate body control, resulting in an increased risk of injury to other participants. Though there are generalized differences in post-pubescent male and female bodies, there are also large overlaps in height, weight and strength among biological boys and girls. Moreover, taller, bigger, stronger athletes compete against shorter, smaller, less strong athletes every day in girls and boys sports, except in sports such as wrestling, where competition is organized solely by weight.
Concern about maintaining competitive equity is the most often expressed reservations about transgender girls competing on girls teams. As with safety concerns, several assumptions are embedded in this issue: That transgender girls are always more skilled, stronger and bigger than their non-transgender teammates and opponents. There is no research to support the contention that enabling a transgender girl to play on a girls team creates a competitive imbalance. In reality, the overlap in skill and performance in sports among biological males and females and the wide variance within each gender group are important considerations to remember in addressing concerns about competitive equity. Concerns about competitive equity also perpetuate a gender stereotype that assumes that anyone with a male body will outperform anyone with a female body. As girls and women take advantage of increased opportunities to participate in sports, performance gaps between girls and boys have decreased.
High school athletics programs are part of a broad educational curriculum, and the focus should be on enabling participation – not restricting it – for all students. Adopting well-informed and inclusive policies for the participation of transgender athletes according to their affirmed gender identity is consistent with the educational values of equity and fairness for all students.
It is estimated that 3 in 1000 people identify as transgender. Out of those three student-athletes, there will occasionally arise a special person like Jane Doe, who has overcome the bullying, hatred, and institutionalized discrimination in order to run fast. How will you deal with it?
I want to fully credit Pat Griffin, Professor Emerita in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an educator and advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ students in college and interscholastic athletics, for her inspiration, words, and guidance in compiling this blog post.