Why should our school adopt a policy enabling transgender students to participate in sports and physical education according to their gender identity rather than requiring them to participate according to their sex assigned at birth?
K-12 schools must meet the needs of diverse populations of students. School athletic and physical education programs, as integral parts of K-12 programming should be available to all students including transgender students. Several recent court decisions have affirmed that schools have a legal responsibility to abide by Title IX
with regard to enabling students to participate in all school activities according to their self-affirmed gender identity. In addition to legal responsibilities, schools need to recognize that refusing to recognize a student’s self-affirmed gender identity and requiring transgender students to participate according to their gender assigned at birth poses a threat to their health and well-being. Enabling all students to thrive in an inclusive and respectful climate should be the goal of all school policy and practice.
I don’t understand gender identity so how can I make informed decisions about including transgender students in school athletics and physical education programs?
In order to design effective policies, educators must understand that gender is a core part of everyone’s identity and that gender is more complex than our society generally acknowledges. Learning about the experiences of transgender people can help educators to see more clearly how gender affects all of our lives, and to put that knowledge into practice in order to better serve all students. Addressing the needs of transgender students is an important emerging equal opportunity issue that must be taken seriously by school leaders. Because a more complex understanding of gender may be new and challenging for some people, there is a danger that misinformation and stereotypes will guide policy decisions rather than accurate and up-to-date information. Athletic leaders who are charged with policy development need guidance to avoid inscribing misconceptions and misinformation in policies that, ultimately, create more problems than they solve.
How does the participation of transgender students on school sports teams or physical education classes affect competitive equity?
All of these concerns focus primarily on the participation of transgender girls on girls’ teams. Concerns about transgender boys playing on boys sports teams are less frequently raised except for privacy concerns about transgender boys’ use of the boys’ locker room and bathrooms. The belief that biological sex (the physical bodies we have) determines gender identity is a common theme undergirding all of these concerns. While for most people, biological sex and gender identity are consistent (a person born with a male body identified as male), for transgender people, this is not so. Insisting that a transgender girl is a boy or that a transgender boy is a girl because of their biological sex perpetuates misconceptions and intensifies the trauma experienced by transgender young people who already may feel alienated. A transgender girl or boy’s experience of their affirmed gender rather than the gender they were assigned at birth is as deeply rooted as the gender identity of cisgender girls and boys.
The decision to transition from one gender to another—to align one’s external gender presentation with one’s internal sense of gender identity—is a significant decision that is made only after careful consideration and for the most compelling of reasons. Gender identity is a core aspect of a person’s identity, and it is just as deep- seated, authentic, and real for a transgender person as for cisgender people. Male-to-female transgender girls fully identify and live their lives as girls, and female-to-male transgender boys fully identify and live their lives as boys. For many transgender people, gender transition is a psychological and social necessity. It is essential that educators in and out of athletics understand this. A transgender girl is a girl, not a boy and a transgender boy is a boy, not a girl, regardless of their biological sex.
Concerns about creating an “unfair competitive advantage” on sex-separated teams is one of the most often cited reasons for resistance to the participation of transgender students on sports teams. This concern is cited most often in discussions about transgender girls competing on a girls’ team. These concerns are based on two assumptions: 1) Transgender girls and women are not “real” girls and therefore not deserving of an equal competitive opportunity and 2) Having a male body automatically gives a transgender girl an unfair advantage when competing against non-transgender girls. While some people fear that transgender girls will have an unfair advantage over cisgender girls, it is important to place that fear in context. When examined carefully, the realities underlying this issue are more complex than they may seem at first blush.
The basis of this concern is that transgender girls who have gone through male puberty may have an unfair advantage due to the growth in long bones, muscle mass, and strength that is triggered by testosterone production. Even though, young people who have gone through a male puberty are taller and stronger than most young people who have gone through a female puberty, it is important to acknowledge that not all boys are stronger, taller, faster or more athletically talented than all girls. There is an overlap between the sexes on all of these characteristics. In addition, there is a wide variation within each sex on these characteristics. Members of a boys’ football team include smaller boys and larger boys. Members of a girls’ basketball team include tall and short players. Moreover, depending on the sport or the position played within the sport, characteristics such as height, strength and speed play more or less central roles in athletic performance and success.
In addition, a growing number of transgender youth are undergoing medically guided hormonal treatment prior to puberty, thus effectively neutralizing this concern. Increasingly, doctors who specialize in treating transgender young people are prescribing hormone blockers to protect children who identify as the other gender from the trauma of undergoing puberty in the wrong gender and acquiring unwanted secondary sex characteristics. When young transgender people are old enough to make an informed decision, they can make the choice of whether to begin taking hormones as part of their transition. Transgender girls who transition before puberty do not go through a male puberty, and therefore their participation in athletics in girls’ sports does not raise the same equity concerns that transgender girls who transition after experiencing a male puberty do.
How does the participation of transgender students on school sports teams or physical education classes affect safety for other students?
Concerns about the safety when a transgender student plays on a sports team that is consistent with their affirmed gender identity reflect should be no more important than concerns for the safety of any young person participating on a sports team or in physical education classes. Variations in size, strength and skill are typical in all of these activities whether transgender students are participating or not. Appropriate measures should always be taken to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all participants.
How do we address issues of privacy and safety in the locker room, showers or bathrooms when transgender students are allowed to use the facilities that align with their gender identity?
Controversy over what locker room and bathroom a transgender student should use has led to some states going so far as to pass legislation requiring students to use facilities that are consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their self-affirmed gender identity. In addition to contradicting the requirements of TitleIX, these laws are often based on a completely unwarranted fear that transgender girls pose a threat to non-transgender girls in the bathroom or locker room. This perceived threat is based on the perception that a transgender girl is really a boy and should not have access to the girls’ locker room. The fear that boys will pretend to be girls to gain access to the girls’ locker room are farfetched and can be easily addressed by parents and school leaders if this occurs.
Concern about privacy in the locker room is a legitimate issue that should be addressed whether transgender students are present or not. All students should have access to some privacy in school locker room and bathrooms. Some students need privacy for religious reasons, personal modesty, bodily scars, disabilities, a personal history of sexual abuse or a variety of other reasons. Every school should evaluate their locker rooms and bathrooms and make accommodations to provide access to privacy. These provisions can be as simple as installing privacy screens or curtains that provide privacy for any student who prefers or needs it.
Aren’t transgender girls participating on girls teams taking a spot away from other girls?
Some advocates for gender equality in high school and college sports are
concerned that allowing transgender girls or women—that is, male-to-female transgender athletes who were born male, but who identify as female—to compete on girls’ teams will take away opportunities from “real” girls. This concern is rooted in the misperception that transgender girls are really boys. The persistence of this belief invalidates the gender identity of transgender girls and also assumes that transgender girls will have an unfair advantage over non-transgender girls. In any sport where students must compete for places on the team, not all students will make the team. This is a reality of interscholastic athletics whether transgender students are trying out for the team or not.
What about boys who might say they are transgender so they can compete on a girls’ team?
A boy masquerading as a girl so that he can play on a girls’ sports team are as unlikely as a boy pretending to be a girl to gain access to the girls’ locker room. It is unlikely that a cisgender boy would be willing to present himself as a girl in all aspects of his life and be supported by his parents and health care givers in this charade for the sole purpose of playing on a girls’ sports team.
What if parents have religious objections to transgender students participating on teams or in physical education classes or intramural sports according to their self-identified gender identity?
Parents who are concerned about the participation of
transgender students in intramural sports, athletics or physical education,
whether this concern is based on their religious beliefs or some other issue,
have the right to assurances that their child's privacy and safety are
protected just as the parents of transgender students have the right to be
assured that their child's safety and privacy are protected. Public schools are
obligated, both legally and morally, to protect all students and provide all
students with equal access to school programming.
If parents who have religious concerns about their child's
participation in physical education, intramurals or athletics with transgender
students have specific questions about how their child's safety and privacy are
protected, school personnel need to be prepared to answer these questions just
as they would for any other parent who is has these concerns for any reason.
Parents who object to the inclusion of transgender students
in athletics or physical education based on their religious beliefs about
transgender identity may need to be reminded that public schools are obligated
to respect and include all students, including transgender students as well as
students of different faiths, races and abilities among other differences.
While the religious right of students to express their faith in public schools
is protected, they also have an obligation to respect the rights of other
students who do not share their faith or who are not accepted by their faith as
is sometimes the case for LGBT students.
Department of Education and Department of Justice —Dear
Colleague Letter on Transgender Students: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201605-title-ix-transgender.pdf
Teaching Tolerance —Best Practices: Creating an
LGBT-inclusive School Climate: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2013/toolkit-for-lgbt-best-practices
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention —Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, and Transgender Health: http://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm
Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition —Best
Practices for Serving Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students in
Women's Sports Foundation —On the Team: Equal Opportunity
for Transgender Athletes: http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/en/home/research/articles-and-reports/lgbt-issues/transgender-student-athlete-report