Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Report Urges Equal Opportunity for Transgender Athletes

The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Women's Sports Foundation recently teamed up to tackle the barriers transgender student athletes face when seeking to participate in sex-segregated sports. A report released this week, authored by NCLR's Helen Carroll and WSF/It Takes A Team emerita Pat Griffin, provides guidance, in the form of policy recommendations and best practices, to high schools and colleges regarding this issue. The report is timely and necessary, as transgender athletes may be effectively excluded by the absence of any such policy, and in other cases, directly excluded by policies that do exist. Under the policy of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association, for example, transgender athletes may compete with the sex that matches their gender identity only if they comply with the same standard that the International Olympic Committee uses for this purpose -- a very high standard that requires legal sex change, sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatments, and a two year waiting period. At the high school level, very few students are likely to have the time and resources to comply with these requirements within the period of time of high school eligibility, let alone a medical diagnosis that warrants irreversible surgery at such a young age.

In contrast, the report urges all state interscholastic agencies to adopt a policy of inclusion modeled on the one adopted by the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association two years ago. The WIAA's policy allows students to participate in the sports for whichever sex the student consistently identifies. A liberal participation policy ensures that all students have access to the educational benefits provided through athletics, and reflects the wide variation that already exists within the sexes, particularly among youth.

For college athletics, the report recommends a policy that focuses on a particular medical aspect of a transgender athlete's transition to the opposite sex: hormone treatment. Under the prescribed policy, a transgender athlete transitioning from male to female may compete in women's sports after a one year of taking estrogen and androgen blockers. (Such an athlete may continue to participate in men's sports during that one-year period, and even afterwards if she so chooses.) This policy reflects scientific research suggesting that most relevant sex-based physical differences are materially reduced or eliminated by such treatment. For the opposite reason, an athlete transitioning from female to male may not compete in women's sports after testosterone treatments have begun.

Significantly, neither the recommendation for high school or college athletics borrows from the IOC's surgical requirement, deemed overly-restrictive and, in light of hormone requirement, unnecessary to reduce sex-related physical differences between the sexes. The proposed policies also differ from existing ones by spelling out an athlete's right to appeal any challenge to their participation, ensuring confidentiality, and addressing collateral issues such as locker rooms, uniforms, and hotel room assignments. With regard to the latter issues, the policy takes the position that a transgender athlete ought to be treated like any other athlete of his or her transitioned sex. It smartly goes on to say that teams should support and seek to accommodate any athlete with privacy concerns, not just transgender athletes.

In sum, the proposed policies are appropriately focused on inclusion, and incorporate a well-researched position on the limited degree to which physical differences create competitive advantages, as well how such differences, when they tend to be more relevant, are moderated by hormone therapy. I hope that it gains traction among state athletic associations and college associations like the NCAA, and I am optimistic that this will be the case. Significantly, the report authors got input from athletic administrators in addition to the scientists and legal experts they also consulted.