By Dan Woog
Before the 2006-07 school year, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association had never fielded a question about transgender athletes. That year, they received four inquiries about whether teenagers with non-traditional gender identities could compete for their schools.
Trans issues were no longer out of bounds.
“No one had ever asked, so we had no policy,” recalls Jim Meyerhoff, assistant director of the WIAA – the governing body for all Washington state high school sports. “But when we got four requests in one year, our board and executive director felt the need to explore the situation.”
Meyerhoff, the administrator charged with developing a policy, called local like the Human Rights Campaign and American Civil Liberties Union. They could not provide any information to help formulate a high school sports policy. In fact, the only athletics organization Meyerhoff could find that had addressed trans issues was the International Olympic Committee. In April 2007 the WIAA adopted the IOC’s basic position, which stated that trans individuals could participate in sports in their reassigned gender, provided they had undergone surgery and a minimum of two years of hormone treatment. “At least we had a policy, even though it was fairly restrictive,” Meyerhoff says.
That marked the first policy by any state athletic association in the country. And it caught the eye of HRC, which last fall requested a meeting. Meyerhoff says HRC realized that “they should have been with us at the front end,” but did offer to help the association revise the wording.
Nearly two dozen representatives of groups like the HRC and ACLU, along with women’s and other minority organizations, met with a professional facilitator from Evergreen State College. It took five hours, but they hammered out a rough draft. Meyerhoff and his committee then tweaked it.
Where the 2007 policy talked about “transgender” issues, the revised version referred to “gender identity or expression.” It says: “Fundamental fairness, as well as most local, state and federal rules and regulations, requires schools to provide intersex and transgender student-athletes with equal opportunities to participate in athletics. This policy creates a framework in which this participation may occur in a safe and healthy manner that is fair to all competitors.”
The policy says that if questions arise whether “a student’s request to participate in a sex-segregated activity consistent with his or her gender identity is bona fide,” the student may seek review of eligibility through a confidential process, beginning with his or her school administrators. A hearing would then be scheduled before a WIAA committee specifically established to consider gender identity appeals. The committee is to include at least one person from the medical or mental health field who is familiar with gender identity issues.
The second, and final, level of appeal is to the WIAA executive director.
“When there is confirmation of a student’s consistent gender identity,” the policy states, “the eligibility committee/WIAA Executive Director will affirm the student’s eligibility to participate in WIAA activities consistent with the student’s gender identification.” In addition, the athletic association will help provide resources and training for schools seeking assistance regarding gender identity issues.
The organization disseminated information about the policy in its handbook, clearly indicating it was a “rule change,” and in fall workshops with school administrators.
Already this academic year, the WIAA has had one request for review. The HRC helped the WIAA form an eligibility committee. Citing confidentiality, Meyerhoff would not reveal the sport or gender identity of the student. However, he says, because it involved a winter sport, the WIAA is handling the matter as expeditiously as possible.
There has been no opposition to the new policy, Meyerhoff says. One reason, he believes, is that “we were pretty upfront all along. We told people we’d had requests about this, so we addressed it. It’s better to be on the front end of something like this than the back.”
Meyerhoff says that when gender identity issues first arose, he knew “no more than the general public. With my limited knowledge, I thought it would have been difficult for any teenager to do this [be open about gender identity issues, and ask to participate in sports].” During his research, however, he realized that the mission of the WIAA – to do the right thing for all student-athletes – necessitated accommodations.
Though Washington is the first state in the nation to address transgender issues in high school sports, Meyerhoff plays down the WIAA’s pioneering stance. “A need arose, and we tried to meet it,” he says.
“We’re intent on implementing this. Once the first appeals are decided, we’ll go back to the stakeholders who helped us form this. We’ll see what else is needed. We realize this is a work in progress. In a few years, as society changes, we may tweak this again.”