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Transgender High School Athletes: Policy at Play

By Sophia Ahmadi

AHMADI 1: Ashleigh Lucina is on her way to a high school track meet. She’s signed up for four events.

LUCINA 1: It’s insane, I’m in the first event / then the 800 then the 15, then four by four, not necessarily in that order. We’re doing a tonne and I forgot my spikes, uhhh…..

AHMADI 2: Lucina’s a senior at Sweet Home Senior High School in Buffalo where she’s been competing for the girls track team. But only for the past two months, prior to that she was running for the boys.

LUCINA 2: I really wasn’t out freshman year, but once I joined the track team, that really motivated me to kind of open up and blossom.  

AHMADI 3: Today Lucina openly identifies as transgender. But deciding to compete for the girl’s team was a difficult decision. She was born male and was worried that the testosterone in her body might give her an unfair advantage.

LUCINA 3:  But the summer of last year, I had an epiphany/ I still have to train really hard in order to be really good/ The testosterone isn’t a win button / there are people who train at the same level as me, maybe even less than me and are much better than me. Male or female, it doesn’t really matter because you have to put in the effort in order to even be good in the first place.

AHMADI 4:  Unlike in collegiate sports, there is no national governing body for transgender athletes in high school.

Federal law does prohibit sex discrimination in education, including athletics, through Title IX.  

BUZUVIS 1: Title IX is the law that says, while schools can separate athletic opportunities into male and female / you can only do so if you’re providing equal treatment, equitable resources, equitable number of opportunities to members of each sex.

AHMADI 5: Erin Buzuvis is a law professor at Western New England University who specializes in Title IX. She says the law currently poses a question. How does it apply to a transgender student?

BUZUVIS 2: And the answer to that is that Title IX does not have any express language in the statute about its application to transgender students. It doesn’t have any express language in the regulations.

AHMADI 6:  That all means states are left on their own to determine policy. 17 states, including New York, allow transgender athletes from K-12 to compete without restrictions.  In New York individual school districts have the power to decide which gender category a transgender student can compete in. But Texas uses the sex athletes were assigned at birth to determine their eligibility. Some states like Kentucky even require high school athletes to undergo sex reassignment surgery before they can play.  That’s a requirement even transgender Olympians no longer have to comply with. Other states require a year of Hormone Replacement Therapy before student athletes can compete on a new team.

Joanna Harper is a medical physicist who advises the International Olympic Committee on regulations for trans athletes. She says determining these policies can be complicated. One big reason:

HARPER 1: High school athletes develop at different rates both as human beings and as athletes, and there are such markedly different changes that they go through, that this is extraordinarily challenging to come up with policies for athletes at that level.

AHMADI 7: And another stumbling block, how to come up with a policy that seems fair to all student athletes. Some students and parents are concerned that transgender athletes have an unfair advantages. But Harper says the reality is much more complicated.

HARPER 2: When trans women undergo hormone therapy, they lose strength, they lose speed, they lose aerobic capacity.

AHMADI 8: But she says there are also some things that don’t change, like height.

HARPER 3: On average, transgender women will be taller, bigger and stronger /And those are advantages in many sports, but transgender women also will have disadvantages, particularly because transgender women now have a bigger frame that’s being powered by reduced aerobic capacity and reduced muscle mass.

AHMADI 9: And there’s another problem. While for some students, sports might just be an after-school activity, for others the stakes are higher; scholarships to college, national competitions and dreams of going pro.

HARPER 4:  And so the really difficult question is where to draw a line, how to draw the line / and it’s extraordinarily difficult.

AHMADI 10: Sarah Rose Huckman isn’t looking to go pro but she is a competitive athlete. She’s in her final year of high school in New Hampshire.  When she’s not skiing in the winter, she’s running track in the summer.

The policy in New Hampshire is similar to New York’s guidelines. A student informs their superintendent about their decision to participate in the team consistent with their gender identity, and the superintendent then determines the students eligibility. But in states like New Hampshire, decisions on eligibility can be challenged by another school and that worries Huckman.

HUCKMAN 1: When I first came out as like a transgender teen / my biggest fear when competing with sports, it was like other schools can and still can question my eligibility to be competing on the girls team. And that was my one fear in the back of my mind saying like what if I have to not compete my hardest in order to not be noticed?

AHMADI 11: New-York based advocacy group Athlete Ally, which champions LGBTQ rights in sports says LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to drop out of sports and just over 80% are likely to experience discrimination and abuse while playing sports.

And that can have an impact far off the court. Here’s Buzuvis, the Title IX law professor again.

BUZUVIS 3: Validation is extremely powerful /when a school allows a transgender girl to use the girls’ facilities, / to participate as a girl on a girl’s athletic team/that sends a very powerful message to that girl that she’s seen as a girl, that she’s regarded as such, that her classmates will share that respect for her gender identity.

AHMADI 12: As for transgender teen athlete Ashleigh Lucina, she says  sports has given her the opportunity to feel accepted.  

LUCINA 4: Sports has given me a second family / I can always go to track practice and I can always talk to someone about life and I can always share my goods, my bads, everything. They’re not basically a second family. They are a second family. And for the longest time they were there when other people  weren’t.

AHMADI 13: Lucina’s been accepted into the University at Buffalo for chemical engineering where she’ll start in the fall. She’s planning on trying out for the women’s swim team. The university requires trans female athletes to complete one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment before they are able to compete for the women’s team. Lucina started taking a testosterone suppressor two weeks ago. She says knowing the school’s policy she has no choice but to wait. She’ll try out as soon as she can.

Sophia Ahmadi, Columbia Radio News.


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