By LEAH WILLINGHAM
In theory, any transgender New Hampshire high school athlete can play on the team that aligns with his or her gender identity, according to rules set by the state’s high school athletic association.
In practice, those students still face many hurdles before they can ever take the field.
In 2010, athletic rules in the state were modeled after the NCAA’s policy requiring athletes to receive hormone treatment before being eligible to play.
Four years later, a new policy that backed away from those requirements was adopted.
Mandating student athletes to take hormones set “unrealistic” standards for high school students, said Jeff Collins, executive director of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“What it’s all about is: How do we accommodate these kids, and how do we make sure that they have a fulfilling high school experience?” Collins said. “That’s what it really comes down to.”
Critics say allowing transgender athletes to participate – specifically transgender women who were born male – presents an unfair advantage in competition.
But educators see little evidence that any athlete has changed genders to gain a competitive edge.
“No kid is going to say, ‘Wear a skirt this month and go by Mary and we’ll win the championship,’ ” said John Stark Regional High School Principal Chris Corkery. “That’s just not going to happen.”
The number of transgender students in the state is slim, and the number of those students participating in athletics is even slimmer.
Benjamin Boh, an endocrinologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said many transgender children never end up participating in sports at all because of confusion surrounding their bodies.
“Due to early gender segregation, many turn away from organized sports, and that’s something that has always bothered me,” Boh said.
As of 2014, a transgender student who wishes to participate on a sports team must notify the school in writing at least two months before a season.
The school will then verify the student’s gender identity through written statements and documentation from parents, friends, teachers and a health care professional that confirm the student’s consistent gender identification and expression.
Medical documentation, such as hormonal therapy or sexual reassignment surgery, may also be used to review cases, but going through hormone therapy is no longer a requirement.
The NHIAA’s policy is ranked in the top 15 in the country for inclusiveness by TransAthlete.com, a site created by Chris Mosier, the first openly transgender man to qualify for a United States national team.
The debate over who should be allowed to play made national headlines in June when a high school student in Alaska became the first transgender student in her state to win a state championship in girls’ track and field. The student received backlash from competitors’ parents on Facebook and social media.
The NHIAA has a provision in its transgender policy that allows any one of the 116 member schools to challenge a player’s eligibility and begin a review process if they find that a player is unfit to participate.
Collins said the appeal process is one that has never been utilized.
Correy Parker, athletic director at Oyster River High School in Durham, said his concern is the harm that men’s sports could pose to transgender men.
“When you look at these extremely physical men’s sports, like football, hockey and lacrosse, inequalities are going to reflect in the physicality of the game, rather than on the scoreboard,” Parker said.
Competition vs. participation
In 2014, the Federal Office of Civil Rights clarified that discrimination against transgender students in schools is covered by Title IX, and that educators are accountable for ensuring the safety and inclusion of transgender students in all school-sponsored activities.
“Most students are not interested in being trailblazers, they just want to play a sport, avoid controversy, but could be discouraged if they have to go through too much hassle and public scrutiny,” said LGBT sports advocate Pat Griffin.
“Schools have a responsibility to do the best job they can to make sure all students can participate, and it’s important for us as educators to make sure we’re providing opportunities for students rather than throwing up barriers.”
Boh, of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said inequality in competition is not something that should be “a big issue” at the high school level.
“I don’t see the harm as long as individuals are safe,” he said.
At the international level, female athletes who display more masculine characteristics are “always brought under scrutiny with the idea that it’s somehow more unfair,” Boh said.
“We need to take the focus away from that, and on how can we have equity for transgender individuals and allow them to participate,” Boh said.
At Oyster River, Parker said the high school has had transgender students, but none have been athletes. Parker said it’s “only a matter of time” until the school does.
Concord High Athletic Director Steve Mello said the school deals with the needs of each transgender athlete on a case-by-case basis.
“If we had an athlete in this situation, we would meet with the family, figure out their needs and go on from there,” Mello said. “We would take the steps to support the student and the family and figure out what’s going to work.”
Already, younger generations are increasingly more accepting of their transgender peers.
Corkery, principal at John Stark, said students are more likely to come to him in defense of a transgender student than to complain about one.
“This generation doesn’t care,” he said. “They’re more concerned with are you a good person, or are you not? It’s the parents that are wrapped around an axle on this issue.”
And while the state’s rules are in place to set guidelines and protect fairness in competition, the goal is inclusion, educators said.
Limiting transgender children from participating in sports teams eliminates the life lessons athletics offer a young person, like team building and time management, Corkery said.
“There’s a lot more to sports than just winning,” Corkery said.