Minnesota delays vote on transgender student athletes amid outcry

Transgender student laments ‘scary’ sexualisation of issue by opponents of policy to support athletes’ gender identification

Nearly 500 Minnesota high schools are waiting for a directive on how to treat transgender athletes, after a Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) vote on a proposed policy regarding such students was postponed on Thursday.

The policy, which would create a system for students who want to play on sports teams of the gender with which they identify, has attracted emotional support from transgender students and their families as well as impassioned opposition.

An advocacy group, MN Child Protection League, ran an ad in the Minnesota Star Tribune’s Sunday sports section decrying the proposal. The ad said: “A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are you OK with that?”

Though the MSHSL executive director, David Stead, said the ad “misrepresents everything that is in the current draft policy”, the general theme of the ad marked Thursday’s discussions.

Some said creating a supportive environment for transgender students would encourage people to switch genders for a competitive advantage in high school sports; others claimed that it would create a dangerous environment in locker rooms and bathrooms.

Jae Bates recently graduated from Hopkins high school in Minnesota, where he was the only openly transgender athlete. He has been following the discussions from the University of Puget Sound in Washington, where he is now a freshman.

“This is really important to me because track and field was such a formative part of my high-school experience that I want all other students to participate in whatever way they feel comfortable and to feel supported by their state and by their team,” Bates told the Guardian.

Bates competed on Hopkins high school’s women’s track and field team from freshman to junior year, despite coming out as male between sophomore and junior year. His team-mates were supportive after he explained that he would continue to compete on the women’s team but wanted to be treated as a male student.

“It was a good situation for me, but I really didn’t feel comfortable in any other sports, because I didn’t really feel that that understanding and that support would reach across in every athletic world,” said Bates.

In the US, track and field teams are usually more co-ed than other sports – both teams typically practise and compete at the same time, on the same track. The more strict gender separation in other sports led Bates to drop swimming, a sport he had loved.

“I enjoy the activity of swimming now that I have figured out my gender identity, but for a while, I was so torn about it that I decided I hated it and quit,” said Bates.

He considered joining other teams, but relented because of these gender issues. He also was reluctant to once again go through the process of what he called “fighting for your right to be acknowledged”. Bates still carried that burden in his personal life and in track, where he taught people about the proper way to identify him, the proper pronouns to use, and to call him Jae.

“It definitely kept me from branching out and trying new things,” said Bates.“It was definitely limiting, not having a policy.”

The proposed MSHSL policy, which has been revised multiple times, specifies how students can request to participate in sports with the gender with which they identify. The process would include a review of documents that could include medical records and asks schools to have a plan in place to educate administration, workers and students about transgender people and address any accommodations needed.

Bates credits the support of his track and field coach, who was also the school’s Gay Straight Alliance adviser, his team-mates and the liberal-minded community in which he was raised for making his athletic experience a beneficial and supportive one. Within his team, and while competing at other schools, Bates said he never heard people expressing negative opinions.

“If your coaches are visibly supporting you, the whole team, regardless of whether they truly support what you’re going through or not they will at least on the field or at school be very supportive or at least very respectful of you,” said Bates.

Thirty-two states have protections for transgender students at state or district level. Iowa and South Dakota approved such policies this year.

Transgender students are also federally protected under Title XI, the statute that says schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of sex. Schools enact transgender athlete policies to ensure that transgender students have the right to participate fully in all student activities.

Bates said he thinks his high school is a kind of model for what the proposed policy is trying to achieve.

“I want my friends to be able to go to school where they feel as comfortable as I was – to be able to be a part of a team and be a part of something,” said Bates.

“I don’t think any transgender person feels that entitled or comfortable to go into a locker room and start harassing people – that’s just seems a little bit outrageous to me.”

Bates said the sexualisation of a high-school sports policy by the opponents of the MSHSL policy was “scary”.

Jenny Betz, director of education and youth programmes at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said that while such complaints are frequently brought up when regions propose such policies, there is not really any evidence that such things happen in US schools.

“The reality is that transgender students across the country – in schools and athletics and society at large – face incredibly high, and disproportionately high, discrimination, including in schools,” said Benz.

“We know that athletics can be incredibly beneficial to all young people so I think it’s really something that all of us as educators, and organisations and community members, need to commit to ensuring that transgender students have access to these things – especially in a culture that is victimising them.”


Amanda Holpuch in New York

The GuardianTramp

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