Transgender athletes are continuing to make national headlines. The focus not necessarily on their accomplishments, but the noise around them.
High school policies on transgender athletes differ across the country with some states requiring athletes to play by the gender on their birth certificate, while others — like Colorado — allow athletes to play as the gender they self-identify.
“I think our message is and would continue to just be, we are about the participation and opportunity for all student-athletes,” said Colorado High School Activities Association assistant commissioner Bethany Brookens, who oversees the association’s equity committee.
Brookens pointed to the association’s unveiling of three new sports in 2020 with boys volleyball, unified bowling and girls wrestling, as well as the board of directors’ approval of esports as a pilot activity. The goal through everything they do, Brookens said, is inclusion for all students.
“I think we are trying to really allow all students at a high school to feel like they belong, and that they’re part of the high school experience and part of a team” Brookens said. “We know students that are a part of their high school and part of a team are happier, healthier and have less mental health issues — at least so we hope.”
Around the country, a sense of belonging is at the core of transgender athletes’ place in high school sports.
Last month, the success of two transgender athletes on the high school track and field scene in Connecticut prompted a federal discrimination complaint by three female students. According to the Hartford Courant, the grievance outlines how the transgender athletes cost them top finishes in competitions and possible college scholarships.
And before that there was the extensive coverage of a Texas high school transgender wrestler, who was transitioning from female to male by taking a low-dose testosterone.
Mack Beggs asked to wrestle in the boys’ division, per the Associated Press, but wasn’t allowed in correspondence with the state high rule that he had to compete under the gender on his birth certificate.
In 2017, a last-minute lawsuit tried to stop his march to a state championship in the girls’ division. And the year after that, the Dallas Morning News posted a video of Beggs’ second straight state title win being met by cheers and boos from the stands.
While issues like these could arise anywhere in the country, Eddie Hartnett, the current athletic director at Boulder High School and former chair on the state association’s equity committee, believes the state’s transgender policy is reason why it hasn’t in Colorado.
“I knew that this was the right thing to do,” said Hartnett, who assisted in writing the CHSAA transgender bylaw. “And I think it saved the state millions in lawsuits and other issues that would have came up. But that is not the important thing. The important thing is that we were able to teach schools and athletic directors and coaches about equity, about doing the right thing. It was about opening their eyes to what kids were currently facing across America.”
Colorado’s transgender policy was approved in 2010 and revised in 2013, per a 2014 CHSAANow.com story.
Colorado is one of 19 states deemed “inclusive” by transathlete.com. The site presents each of the state’s transgender policies and labels them as inclusive (no medical hormones or surgery required), needing modification (decisions based case-by-case or by individual review), discriminatory (requires birth certificate or has surgery and hormone wait period) or has no policy.
According to CHSAANow’s 2014 piece, the state policy was ushered into existence by current CHSAA commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green, an assistant commissioner at the time, as well as Hartnett. Brookens, meanwhile, worked on the policy after its creation and gave presentations on it at national high school association meetings.
The purpose then was to be proactive, Hartnett and Brookens said. And today, transgender athletes are able to play in the sport they self-identify, which per the policy, is their “innate sense of one’s own gender” and not the gender assigned at birth.
The policy ensures that all schools must give every student equal opportunities to participate in activities and athletics. Gender assignment takes place at the student’s home school, where it will perform “a confidential evaluation to determine the gender assignment for the prospective student-athlete”, the policy reads.
“Students simply need to have a conversation with the administration at their school and there’s no sort of reporting or decision-making at the state level,” Brookens said. “It’s all locally handled.”
Brookens said the school administration should use the policy as guidance and sit down with the student or parent to discuss how to best accommodate them. Hartnett added that administrations have the resources needed to make the student-athlete feel as “welcome and comfortable” as possible.
Colorado, meanwhile, requires a student-athlete to have a “clear and consistent identity”, but does not require hormone therapy or surgery to participate in athletics.
As pointed out in the 2014 CHSAANow story, this differs from the NCAA’s policy which requires hormone therapy to occur for at least one year before participation.
“We’re talking about 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds versus 14- and 15-year-olds,” Brookens was quoted by CHSAANow. The NCAA’s policy could “have implications for any transgender athletes in your states. They might have to make a decision on hormone treatment (during high school) should they want to play in college.”
CHSAA says it will continue to update the transgender policy as needed. As of right now, Brookens said “we don’t have anything in particular that we are looking to change”, but said the association is constantly looking to create a larger conversation in diversity and inclusion.
“One of the things in the works is a CHSAA diversity and inclusion conference for coaches and student participants,” Brookens said. “That is something we are hopeful in adopting this year, although we are still trying to nail down the specifics of the organization.
She added: “As I mentioned before, as more students feel included in their high school the more healthy that student is.”