Montana’s governing body for high school athletics is considering a policy that would create a pathway for transgender student-athletes to compete on the team that matches their gender identity.
The policy proposed by the Montana High School Association would enable Montana teens who were born male but identify as female to compete in girls’ events, and would allow those who were born female but identify as male to compete in boys' events.
“The MHSA allows all students, regardless of gender identity or expression, the opportunity to participate in a safe, competitive environment free of discrimination,” the proposed policy states.
Such language would follow the lead of high school associations in at least 33 other states, said Mark Beckman, MHSA executive director. It would also align with NCAA policy and recent federal guidance on Title IX, the law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in activities at schools receiving federal funds.
The policy would apply to the association’s 179 public and private member schools, Beckman said.
The association has never been notified of a request or disputes regarding transgender athletes in Montana schools, Beckman said. He called it a proactive measure that would establish consistent procedures to protect both students and schools when requests do come in.
“Otherwise, it would be the individual school that would have to deal with this issue,” Beckman said.
High school girls are currently allowed to participate on boys’ wrestling and football teams, but boys may not compete on girls’ teams, and a long-standing court settlement related to Title IX stipulates that volleyball be sanctioned as girls-only.
According to the proposal, transgender students would apply for athletic eligibility through their school. The application would then be reviewed by a gender identity committee made up of medical professionals, MHSA officials and a student advocate, which would make a recommendation to the association’s executive board.
The policy was drafted and published in December in accordance with MSHA procedure, Beckman said. All member schools will vote on the change during the organization’s annual meeting on Jan. 19 in Kalispell. Approval requires a two-thirds vote.
The ACLU of Montana commended the proposal as a potentially inclusive step by Montana schools that would allow transgender students to live and compete “in conformity with who they really are.”
“School sports are an important part of their students’ educational experience,” said Niki Zupanic, public policy director. “It’s really important to make sure that experience is available to all students, regardless of gender.”
However, the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, called it a “bombshell” that would victimize other students if approved.
“It would put people in a position of having their privacy rights violated,” Communications Director Bowen Greenwood said.
“Will your high school be forced to put boys and girls together in a hotel room overnight?” begins a podcast released last week by the Foundation’s president, Jeff Laszloffy. “What about sharing a locker room? And what about putting a 6-foot-5, 220-pound guy on the girls’ basketball team? They may have to if the Montana High School Association gets its way.”
The policy would not require sharing of lockers and hotel rooms, Beckman said, just that transgender students who are deemed eligible are given an equal opportunity to participate. Individual schools could decide upon appropriate accommodations in consultation with their legal counsel.
Concerns about student privacy are not insurmountable for school districts, Zupanic said.
“There’s always a way to figure out how to include a student into a program,” she said.
But districts shouldn’t have to make such accommodations for transgender students if they’d prefer not to, or if doing so would cause financial hardship, Greenwood said.
The Family Foundation also argues that male-to-female transgender students could have an athletic advantage over their female opponents.
“If we have girls losing those spots to boys, that defeats the entire purpose of Title IX,” Greenwood said.
The U.S. Department of Education has interpreted the law differently. The department issued guidance in December that states Title IX recipient schools generally must treat transgender students consistently with their gender identity in all aspects of single-sex classes and activities.
And 2011 NCAA guidelines on the inclusion of transgender athletes call inaccurate the assumption that all male-bodied people are “taller, stronger and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people.”
Zupanic said that because the number of transgender individuals is small, many adults and young people have limited experience with them.
“At first, it can be uncomfortable for people to think about what that’s like,” she said.
The period of transitioning or coming out can bring anxiety for transgender individuals, and data suggest that transgender students are among the most vulnerable in schools.
A recent study by UCLA estimated that more than 63 percent of transgender students reported physical or sexual violence at school, and 40 percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide at some point during their life.
“The reality is nothing like what the Montana Family Foundation is painting a picture of,” Zupanic said. “The reality is that students who are trans are not boys pretending to be girls, or girls pretending to be boys. They are just boys, or they are just girls.”