Transgender High School Athlete Navigates a Maze of Conflicting Policies September 1, 2016

sarah-retouchedSarah Huckman is a 15-year-old sophomore at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. She’s also a talented athlete who competes for both her school’s track and cross country teams. But when Sarah left middle school and started high school a year ago, she wasn’t sure if she’d keep running.

She never lost her passion for track. But because Sarah is transgender, she worried her new school might bar her from competing.

As a transgender girl, Sarah—who was assigned a male identity at birth—has known since she was very young that her gender identity is female. That has presented some challenges for Sarah when she wants to use gender-segregated facilities at school, or participate in gender-segregated activities like sports.

When Sarah told her parents, Jen and Tom Huckman, that she was transgender, there was no question in their minds that they would love, accept and support her. Sarah officially came out as transgender to her classmates, teachers and school administrators after Thanksgiving break in seventh grade. Since then, there have been some issues the Huckmans have had to work through. The first challenge: Finding a place for Sarah to use the bathroom.

“We called the school, and we gave a heads up to the administration, that she was trans and one of these days she would come to school as Sarah,” Tom said. “Riding into school with my wife though, on that first day, she was a little nervous. But it went really well.”

Sarah echoed this sentiment.

“On that first day, it went so well. I wondered what my friends would think, but they were all just like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s awesome’ when I told them I was trans.”

Soon though, Sarah ran into a problem. At first the school had set aside a single-stall, unisex bathroom for her. But this made Sarah feel separated and singled out, so she wanted to start using the girls’ restroom. The U.S. Department of Education supports Sarah’s decision—federal interpretations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 consider prohibiting Sarah from using the girls’ restroom to be illegal sex discrimination. But the school board, Tom says, was reluctant.

“Sarah told the school, ‘You need to have this policy.’ Then a few months went by with no decision. So I called the superintendent one day and I just said, ‘Hey, Sarah will be using the girls room on Monday.’ She [the superintendent] calls me right back, asking for more time, but I just said, ‘If the school board can’t figure it out, this is what we’re doing.’ And then from that day on, it was fine.”

The school board, though, still has not set a district-wide policy, meaning any transgender students who come along after Sarah will likely have to fight the same battles. And while realizing Sarah’s desire to use the girls’ restroom was as simple as saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do’—getting Sarah on the girls’ track and cross country teams has taken a little more finessing.

In junior high, a school’s superintendent can make a unilateral decision about which team a transgender student competes on, and the superintendent at Sarah’s school district had sanctioned her competing on the girls’ team. However, high schools operate under the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) guidelines, which required that transgender students have gender reassignment surgery to compete on the team that matches their gender identity. It isn’t a very helpful policy, Tom says, because reassignment surgery is not something doctors typically recommend to transgender youth.

“[The rules] were very draconian,” he said. “You can’t compete unless you have surgery—which no child has at this age.”

After appealing to the NHIAA on their own and getting nowhere, the Huckmans consulted with a lawyer at GLAD. Then, right before the start of Sarah’s freshman year, they heard that the NHIAA had changed its rules in a way that would allow Sarah to compete, but still left out other transgender student athletes.

The new policy was better, but still problematic,” Tom said. “It allows each school to make its own decision, allowing other transgender students to be left out of sports.”

The new policy also violates student privacy rights, by requiring confidential medical information to be shared with the NHIAA and individuals outside the school.

Sarah_6Thankfully, Sarah says that so far, she hasn’t had a problem.

“Most of the kids know what’s going on, (that I’m transgender), and all of the kids and coaches have been very supportive.”

Still, because there have been no across-the-board changes in policy—and there are no statewide laws prohibiting transgender discrimination at school or elsewhere—Tom fears that at some point in the future, someone will question Sarah’s eligibility to compete.

Ultimately, transgender girls are girls and transgender boys are boys. Sarah and her family know this better than most. But because many laws and policies still do not recognize this fact, the Huckmans have had to spend precious time fighting misperceptions just so Sarah can participate fairly and equally with her peers in the sports she’s passionate about. All she wants to do is to be able to compete—and to know the transgender students who come after her won’t have to fight the same fight.