The Minnesota State High School League is poised to vote Thursday on a proposal that would establish first-ever guidelines in the state for transgender students to take part in high school sports.
The proposal spells out medical documentation that students must provide to identify themselves as transgender, including evidence of hormone therapy, surgery and parental or guardian consent. The plan also has guidelines for how schools should accommodate privacy concerns in locker room areas.
The league said it drafted the proposal with help from OutFront Minnesota, which advocates for transgender issues, to keep in step with societal changes and give its nearly 500 member schools guidance on how to handle them. League Executive Director Dave Stead said the NCAA and 32 states already have “some sort of policy or procedure” in place regarding transgender student-athlete participation.
But the plan has ignited significant outcry and opposition. A scheduled league vote in early August was postponed amid a flurry of criticism, including a letter from the Minnesota Family Council, a Christian-based advocacy group that tries to promote and defend biblical principles in public policy matters, urging that it be rejected.
This week the Mankato-based Child Protection League Action paid for a full-page advertisement on the back page of the Star Tribune’s Sunday sports section spelling out concerns about the plan. It urged parents to contact high school league representatives before Wednesday, when a league workshop is set to hear from the public on the issue.
The group describes itself on its website as a lobbying group seeking to protect children from “exploitation, indoctrination and violence.’’ State coordinator Michele Lentz said her group “categorically rejects the underlying premise of the policy that gender is a matter of choice and not biology.”
Lentz added, “We don’t see the transgender student themselves as dangerous. But other kids who might lack maturity could make situations in the locker room dangerous.”
The ad, on the heels of a similar e-mail from the group last week, set off a social media storm of commentary on Twitter and other forums.
State law allows female athletes to participate on either boys’ and girls’ teams; boys are not permitted to play on girls’ teams. The league, through its member schools, determines guidelines for eligibility, competition and state tournament play.
Stead said he is aware of one situation involving a student who was in transition from one gender to another during his tenure with the league. The policy, he said, is about being prepared for the future.
“If schools are faced with those situations, so are we,’’ he said. “And if we’re going to be faced with them, we want to be proactive to say to schools, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’ While I understand people’s feelings about that, we’re trying to be proactive for our schools.”
Support in Hopkins
Jae Bates competed as a female thrower on the Hopkins girls’ track and field team as a freshman and sophomore before coming out as a transgender person to family, friends and coaches, he said recently. Bates changed his name the summer before his junior year.
“The community was supportive,” said Bates, who graduated last spring. “I rarely ran into people with aggressive opposing opinions.”
Bates preferred to change clothes in the nurse’s office or a unisex bathroom at the Lindbergh Center within Hopkins High School.
It felt safer to be alone rather than in the boys’ or girls’ locker room, he said, adding that the school gave him permission to use whichever locker room he preferred.
Now attending college in Washington, Bates uses a smaller unisex locker room at L.A. Fitness.
“I don’t think a lot of kids like changing in front of people,” Bates said. “And I’m not going to be aggressive in a changing room. The spider is more afraid of you.”
Coming out to teammates “didn’t change any relationships at all,” Bates said. He trained with the boys more often as a junior.
Bates kept competing against girls at meets because he had not started taking hormones to trigger muscle growth.
He considered swimming for the boys’ team as a senior but did not undergo chest surgery in time.
“Conservatives are afraid of sexual harassment but transgender people are more afraid,” Bates said.
Christopher Stinson, an organizing director at OutFront Minnesota who also helps coach Edina High School’s debate team, said one former team member was a transgender male student.
“The only barrier was education, taking time to understand,” Stinson said.
When the team traveled to Michigan, Stinson said, the transgender student slept in a hotel room “with guys who were really supportive.”
Stead said the proposed policy is about how to identify transgender student-athletes’ eligibility. It calls for documentation from medical personnel about hormone treatments, surgery and other records deemed necessary by the school. Written acknowledgement of the gender change also is required from parents or guardians.
The policy states that it’s up to individual school districts to “ensure reasonable and appropriate restroom and locker room accessibility for students.”
In the Midwest, North Dakota and Nebraska also do not have a transgender policy or posted recommendations in place, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Such policies are more widespread on the East Coast. California and Florida also have policies, while Texas does not.
Ilona Turner, legal director at the Transgender Law Center in California, said 0.3 percent of the population are transgender people.
The Office of Civil Rights prohibits discrimination of transgender student-athletes under Title IX. “It’s not optional to have a policy that provides anything less than a full opportunity to participate,” Turner said.
Still, “the bathroom conversation is one of the most challenging ones we find ourselves having,” Phil Duran, legal director at OutFront Minnesota, wrote in an e-mail.
Duran said he has received “at least a dozen inquiries in a short period of time” from parents of transgender children. Such inquires were rare before this year, Duran said.
Duran said “it’s plausible” more transgender student-athletes will come forward because there is a high school league policy.
“A policy would help school districts realize that if the Minnesota State high School League is willing to go down this road, we should, too,” Duran said.
Concerns about ‘trap doors’
As word began to circulate that the proposed policy was scheduled to be voted on in August, the league heard from critics.
“A lot of the letters started off by saying, ‘God didn’t create someone to change and be different,’ and those kinds of things,” Stead said. “And I understand that. But nevertheless, schools are faced with those situations.’’
The Minnesota Family Council sent the high school league a letter dated July 29 urging the league not to adopt the proposed policy.
In the weeks since, the league revised its policy draft to remove language addressing locker room access at state tournaments and instead left it for school districts to have a plan as needed for transgender athletes.
The family council responded with another letter urging rejection, citing rights to privacy, rights for parents to be informed and a lack of transparency in putting the policy together.
Supporters of the policy got more vocal Monday. OutFront Minnesota sent an e-mail decrying the newspaper ad as “derogatory’’ and calling on supporters to attend the league workshop.
Minnesota School Board Association executive director Kirk Schneidawind said his group has shared ideas with the high school league to ensure the policy “is workable and flexible enough for all districts in Minnesota.” Schneidawind’s association represents all of the state’s public schools.
“We’re aware of it, and we’ll make sure our districts are prepared,” Schneidawind said. “There are a lot of legal trapdoors.”
Stead said a big misconception is that private high schools will lose league membership for refusing to participate against any school with a transgender athlete. Schools can choose to forfeit a contest for a variety of reasons.
Todd Flanders, headmaster at Providence Academy High School in Plymouth, is one of 13 Catholic school administrators who meet monthly to discuss issues affecting their schools. He said he plans to read a prepared statement from the group about the proposal at Wednesday’s workshop.