Geoff Smith | From the Baseline: Debate about rights for transgender athletes back in the news

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There were a lot of sports stories this week that merited a look back, but I found one in particular that should have drawn a lot more attention than it did.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education determined that Connecticut's policy allowing transgender girls to compete as girls in high school sports violates the civil rights of athletes who have always identified as female.

In its response, the Office for Civil Rights in the DOE said that it may seek to withhold federal funding over the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference's policy, which allows athletes to participate under the gender with which they identify. The department's civil rights office argues the policy is a violation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that guarantees equal education opportunities for women, including in athletics.

The Education Department's decision is the latest in a slew of recent activity over the policy, which is currently being argued in federal court via a lawsuit filed in February by the families of three cisgender female high school runners (Selina Soule, a senior at Glastonbury High School, Chelsea Mitchell, a senior at Canton High School and Alanna Smith, a sophomore at Danbury High School) that competed against two transgender female sprinters, Terry Miller (a senior at Bloomfield High School) and Andraya Yearwood (senior, Cromwell High School). Miller and Yearwood have frequently outperformed their cisgender competitors in events. According to an Associated Press article on the case, the two seniors "have combined to win 15 girls state indoor or outdoor championship races since 2017, according to the lawsuit."

This week's finding by the Education Department has put the lawsuit and the situation around it back into the national spotlight. It's time that athletic associations across the country take notice, and get ready to act.

As Roger Brooks, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom which represents the three cisgender athletes, said to The AP: "Around the nation, districts are going to want to be reading this, because it does have legal implications. It is a first decision from the agency charged with enforcing Title IX addressing the question of whether males on the playing field or on the track are depriving girls of opportunities consistent with Title IX."

And Title IX is nothing to mess with. Although, in that same vein, Brooks is purposely kicking a hornet's nest by calling Yearwood and Miller "male" athletes in that quote. They are females whether he likes it or not.

What is tough to grapple with in this case, is that any athletic association in its right mind should go to bat for a transgender female athlete that is trying to play a sport in the gender they identify with — but what if defending that right impacts the ability for cisgender females to participate in athletics, extracurriculars, anything school related? Let's not bury our heads in the sand about what losing Title IX funding would do to schools.

"Connecticut law is clear and students who identify as female are to be recognized as female for all purposes — including high school sports," the CIAC said in a statement. "To do otherwise would not only be discriminatory but would deprive high school students of the meaningful opportunity to participate in educational activities, including inter-scholastic sports, based on sex-stereotyping and prejudice sought to be prevented by Title IX and Connecticut state law."

But is the CIAC letting cisgender athletes down by allowing transgender athletes to compete as well?

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"It feels like we are finally headed in the right direction, and that we will be able to get justice for the countless girls along with myself that have faced discrimination for years," said Mitchell, who actually beat Miller for two indoor state titles in the winter. "It is liberating to know that my voice, my story, my loss, has been heard; that those championships I lost mean something."

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state's governing body for high school sports, takes its lead from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has a document on creating safe, supportive school environments.

The document lays out expectations for locker rooms, physical education classes, and athletic activities. In it, the document says: "Where there are sex-segregated classes or athletic activities, including intramural and interscholastic athletics, all students must be allowed to participate in a manner consistent with their gender identity."

The MIAA, therefore, relies on the gender-based participation determinations made by a student's school district.

There is at least one school district in the state that has an explicit transgender policy. In March of 2018, Framingham Public Schools created a policy which guarantees students the right to play on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

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Per the website www.transathlete.com, dedicated to tracking laws and regulations for trans athletes in America, 18 states — including Connecticut and Massachusetts — and Washington D.C. have "inclusive" policies for transgender athletes. Per the website's definition, that means "no medical hormones or surgery required."

10 states have "discriminatory" policies, per the site. In Idaho, Republican Gov. Brad Little went as far as signing into law a measure — which received "overwhelming support in the Republican-dominated House and Senate," per an AP article — that bans transgender women from competing in women's sports, the first such law in the nation.

Just this week, two Idaho State University track and field athletes — both cisgender females — asked for a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the new state law. The Alliance Defending Freedom — the same group representing the cisgender females in Connecticut — is representing the two Idaho athletes.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Voice filed the lawsuit in Idaho. The ACLU is also representing Yearwood and Miller in their federal case. After Thursday's decision by the Education Department, a spokesperson for the ACLU pointed a direct finger.

"All that today's finding represents is yet another attack from the Trump administration on transgender students," said Chase Strangio, who leads transgender justice initiatives for the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and HIV Project.

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The outcome of all of these scenarios will likely be ugly, lengthy and met with uproar no matter how it ends. For better or worse, federal policy is probably going to play a large role in determining the future of transgender athletes competing in high school athletics.

But before you make up your mind one way or another, remember the words of Yearwood — a high school athlete who just wants to compete as herself, no strings attached.

"I will never stop being me!" she said in a statement after the federal lawsuit was filed. "I will never stop running! I hope that the next generation of trans youth doesn't have to fight the fights that I have. I hope they can be celebrated when they succeed not demonized. For the next generation, I run for you!"

———

While we are on social justice subjects, might as well hop right in.

I applaud every single teenager that went out on Saturday, specifically in Pittsfield, where I drove by on my way into work. I was fortunate to catch a red light at the park and got to look around. What I saw were the faces of the people who are going to make change.

Pittsfield, and the Berkshires as a whole is a diverse place, filled with people that have the capacity to do good, and finally make a difference.

No, I don't mean any elected politician. It's you guys, the ones who are 16, 17, 18, stepping into this chaotic mess of a world.

Keep up the good fight. Push for the progress you want to have happen. I see you, and I support you.

Geoff Smith can be reached at gsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter, and 413-496-6254.


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