While expressing support for the intent behind guidelines for transgender athletes to take part in high school sports in Minnesota, the board that oversees eligibility decided Thursday — amid a deluge of public outcry — to think about it a bit longer.
The Minnesota State High School League’s 19-member board voted unanimously to table a plan, drafted by league staff with the help of OutFront Minnesota, designed to help schools determine eligibility of transgender athletes. The board approved a task force to gather information, with a goal of considering the proposal again at its next meeting Dec. 4.
“The board is saying, ‘Let’s walk forward to get it right. Let’s do it as quickly as we can,’ ’’ league executive director Dave Stead said. “ ‘Let’s bring information forward so people can talk about what the issues happen to be.’ ”
In recent days the league, which has twice before delayed action on the sensitive topic, has been inundated with public feedback. Much of it was triggered by huge efforts by critics and supporters of the plan to marshal public opinion.
Board members received an estimated 10,000 e-mails. An overflow crowd turned out at a Wednesday public meeting that included impassioned pleas from parents, students and advocates, with three Brooklyn Center police officers providing security. Another 12 people spoke at Thursday’s meeting.
During the meeting, board members were handed a new, one-page policy draft, down from four pages just last week. While each version of the plan was designed to offer guidance to schools, the latest changes include making an activities director responsible for gathering documentation about an athlete’s gender rather than determining an athlete’s gender.
The simplified policy was devised Wednesday night in Stead’s office in a meeting with the league’s three lawyers.
At the meeting, board members, many of them high school coaches and activities directors, spent about 15 minutes discussing the issue. About 10 board members spoke, each supporting what the policy represents while urging additional input from member schools. Among board members cautioning against a hasty decision were Tom Graupmann, Northfield activities director, and Emmett Keenan, St. Cloud Cathedral activities director.
“I don’t support the policy today as it is written, but I believe in the principles of the policy,’’ Graupmann said.
No board members spoke against the policy’s intent.
Supporters say the policy would validate transgender athletes by sending a message that the high school league recognizes their challenges, and aims to provide a positive experience. Opponents criticize the proposal as too vague, saying it violates legal requirements and fails to protect the rights of non-transgender athletes. Other opponents asked for an exemption for Catholic schools and still others questioned the idea of gender as a choice.
Supporters and critics of the plan had differing interpretations of the vote for more time.
“I think they passed it off, ” said Tina Cho, who addressed the board Thursday in favor of the policy. Cho founded the Twin Cities Youth Rowing club. Her past teams have included about 100 rowers from 30 metro area high schools, junior highs and middle schools. “Frankly, I don’t think they were ready for the reaction,’’ she said.
Autumn Leva, director of legislative affairs and communications for the Minnesota Family Council, said, “The worst thing or the most surprising thing was that some of the folks on the board were actually considering presenting a brand-new policy and passing it within 20 minutes.” The council has urged the league to reject the proposal.
At Wednesday’s meeting, 55 speakers lined up to urge the league to either approve or reject the new plan. Only 28 were heard during the nearly two-hour meeting, where some members of the crowd wore stickers reading “Yes for Trans Justice,” provided by OutFront Minnesota. Others wore buttons with the umbrella logo of the Child Protection League Action group, which opposes the plan.
On agendas since June
The board has been wrestling publicly with the issue since at least June, when it voted to table a transgender policy discussion at its regular meeting. E-mails and phone calls also prompted the league to remove the policy as an action item from the August meeting agenda and schedule it for Wednesday’s workshop.
Reaction intensified after the Mankato-based Child Protection League Action published a full-page ad in Sunday’s Star Tribune that was highly critical of the proposal. The ad set off a social media storm of commentary on Twitter and other forums, including criticism of the ad’s truthfulness.
“In some ways, [the Child Protection League Action] did us a favor by bringing it up, ’’ said Cho, who has volunteered at RECLAIM, an organization supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and families. “I don’t think they expected the backlash. I understand the consternation and fear of making the wrong step but sometimes no action is worse than any action. Right now there are students out there who are suffering.”
The Minnesota Family Council, a Christian-based advocacy group that says it aims to promote and defend biblical principles in public policy matters, has written two letters to the high school league urging that the policy be rejected.
“Part of the problem was that this wasn’t brought forward to the schools and the general public for consideration,’’ Leva said.
The high school league’s task force will seek additional input from school districts, superintendents and activities directors, as well as outside groups, Stead said.
Thirty-two other states and the NCAA have “some sort of policy or procedure” in place regarding transgender student-athlete participation, he said.