Friday, November 28, 2014

Controversy over Minnesota HS League transgender athlete policy

I know we heard/read about the proposed policy by the Minnesota State High School League--and its tabling--that would legislate the participation of transgender high school athletes in Minnesota. It has generated significant controversy, so I am somewhat surprised that we neglected to post anything about it. I shall remedy that here.

It is back in the news, as the policy--somewhat revised--is slated to be discussed next week at a meeting of the MSHSL board, in what is being called "round four."

The policy, which remains the same in that it asks for transgender students to provide a letter from a health care provider attesting to the student's gender identity, continues to draw concern from Catholic and child protection groups in Minnesota who are putting forth somewhat tautological arguments:
“You tell me, where is the research that a biological male or a biological female is not a biological male or a biological female,” MNCPL state coordinator Michelle Lentz said.

Unfortunately this is not even the most problematic statement being made. 

The newest version of the policy will allow schools to decide how to handle the issues surrounding bathrooms and locker rooms. The locker room has created the biggest controversies with opponents of the policy who are apparently worried that children will fake their gender identity in order to gain access to the so-called opposite gender's space and/or that transgender athletes will engage in predatory behaviors.Or at least that is how I am reading it given that they keep referring to (abstract) transgender people by using their non-preferred gender identity.

Opponents clearly do not understand what transgender means. This was made obvious by the state's Child Protection League which took out a newspaper ad days ahead of the original consideration of the policy which had been receiving little attention up until that point. The ad said "A male wants to shower next to your 14-year-old daughter. Are YOU OK with that?”

Again the fear seems to be that predatory boys--of course they use the word "male" which immediately connotes an adult--will be trying to pass as a girl in a way that is harmful to a so-called real girl (note the significance of the use of a precise age alongside "daughter").

I could launch into a quite cynical argument that there are easier ways for boys/males/men to prey on girls, but that be a diversion--an erasure--of the actual issues here, which are 1) the continued discrimination of trans students and 2) the legislation of the bodies and activities of transgender children.

Though both Erin and I write about transgender athletes and the range of policies that govern their participation at all levels of sport, looking always for the best practices, assessing each unique situation, in the end there is no perfect policy. Every one is fraught and that is because they all attempt--very often without the input of the people who are most affected by them--to define what transgender is and make it--and by extension, transgender people--comprehensible, perhaps even palatable, to a general public.

In the case of the Minnesota policy, though it falls toward the less restrictive side of the spectrum (as compared to the IOC's Stockholm Consensus) it still requires "proof" beyond the student's word, taking agency away from that student and placing the power to make decisions about the correct way to do gender in the hands of a health care provider. This means authority over gender identity again is removed from the child seeking to define it for him/her/themselves. The student continues to have to ask permission to engage in a gender identity and also must do so in a way that others decide is appropriate.

This last part is particularly salient in the locker room discourse. Now that MSHSL has left it up to schools to decide how and by whom locker rooms will be used, the stigmatizing potential of the policy has grown and will likely affect any transgender athlete. The publicity around this one aspect of the issue, I suspect, will mean that schools will take a very conservative route in legislating locker room use. This could result, for example, in transgender athletes being given some kind of private space thus denying that student the full experience of being on a sports team--which I would argue is itself gender discrimination and something one might file a lawsuit or complaint about--in addition to the stigmatization.

In other words, in an effort to avoid controversy from a vocal minority, schools could be perpetuating the discrimination the policy allegedly seeks to remedy. Again, this is but one problem with what has been happening in Minnesota around this issue.

I am quite interested to see what happens this week, whose voices and positions are heard and validated, and what policy--if any--emerges.