Christina Ginther, a transgender woman, had long been an athlete looking for a supportive social group.

She thought she had found it in the fall of 2016 with the Minnesota Vixen football team, then part of the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL). Team members welcomed her and cheered her on during an open practice before tryouts.

"I thought, 'This is it,' " she said Friday. "I found my home."

But when the team's owner discovered that Ginther was transgender, the team yanked the welcome mat.

This week, a Dakota County jury found that the team and the league discriminated against Ginther because she is transgender, a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Ginther was awarded $10,000 for emotional distress and $10,000 in punitive damages.

The decision, her attorney said Friday evening, is significant because it is believed to be the first time a jury decided in favor of a transgender person in a business discrimination case in Minnesota.

"These are the discriminatory things that happen to transgender people every day," said Nicholas May, Ginther's attorney. "Even these small things can create significant mental health and esteem issues for transgender people."

The jury decided that's not right, May said.

"It wasn't some law professor or some politician getting up and talking about transgender rights," he said. "It's a jury of regular folks who are saying, 'This isn't OK.' That's novel."

Ginther, 46, transitioned to being a woman from 2014 through 2015, losing her marriage and many friends in the process. Wanting to rebuild her life in 2016, she searched for a supportive social group to join. She turned to the pages of Lavender, a Minnesota LGBT magazine, and found that the Vixen team seemed to be a welcoming organization. Another publication had a story about a transgender female, Sabreena Lachlainn, who played for the IWFL after helping rewrite the league's eligibility policy to allow transgender women to play.

Ginther had never played football before. "I went to St. Thomas Academy, an all-boys school, and it was scary to be in a locker room with boys," she said. "I was uncomfortable with my body."

Taunted and bullied, she got involved with martial arts. "I felt empowered and became a second-degree black belt," she said. "It was a big boost to my self-esteem. No one ever called me sissy after that."

As a marathon runner who embraced the idea of pushing her body to its limits, she thought playing tackle football would do the same. At first the Vixen team seemed to embrace and encourage her, she said. But players acted differently toward her at the third tryout, she said. "Everyone was cold toward me."

Apparently someone suspected that she was transgender and discovered one of Ginther's social media accounts that documented her transition. A call Friday to the Vixen owner was not returned.

"I don't know what could have given me away," she said.

Sometimes insecurity gets the best of her, she said. "The stereotype is that women like to ask if a dress makes them look fat," she said. " 'I ask, 'Does this make me look like a boy?' "

After her transition, Ginther legally changed her name and the gender marker on her birth certificate. What she didn't know, she said, was that the IWFL had changed its eligibility policy in 2012, requiring players to certify that they are and always have been legally and medically female.

"No trans person can say they are now and always have been," said Ginther, who played in the Women's Football Alliance (WFA) the last two seasons — the Minnesota Machine in 2017 and the Madison Blaze in 2018. The WFA league welcomes transgender athletes, she said.

The Minnesota Vixen is now a member of that league, according to its website.

On the surface, the case may seem to be just about a transgender woman who wants to play tackle football, Ginther said. But discrimination is never just about a seat on the bus or being allowed to use a bathroom, she said.

"I love my country," she said. "But it's a terrifying feeling when you see your rights are being taken away."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788