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By Dan Woog
Born a male, Jazz began to live as a girl at a young age. Thanks to supportive parents, she was well-adjusted and happy – except for one thing. For more than two years, the Florida Youth Soccer Association prohibited her from competing as a female player.
Her birth certificate said she was a boy. Her passport called her a boy. FYSA would not budge.
Jazz and her parents took their case up through various administrative levels. When it got to the US Soccer Federation, the board of directors almost unanimously agreed to let her play as a girl.
Then, US Soccer set about devising a formal policy, to cover future transgender players, too.
It sounds like a straightforward case of a clear-thinking, objective board making a decision based both on 21st-century realities, and what’s right for athletes who have not had a voice or advocates in the past.
And it is. But US Soccer’s decision is very rare. In fact, it may be the only national sports governing body with a blanket policy covering transgender athletes.
Shortly after voting to allow Jazz – then 11 years old – to play as a female, US Soccer appointed a committee to study the broader issue of transgender soccer players. The chair was Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia. A former president of the organization, and a noted Colorado nephrologist. He and the committee pored through an enormous amount of literature and scientific data.
They studied what other sports bodies were doing about trans issues. Most were silent. The United States Olympic Committee, for example, has no policy. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), meanwhile, has what Contiguglia calls “draconian” rules.
Then Contiguglia brought three outside experts to an all-day meeting in Chicago. Led by Helen Carroll – sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights – the trio helped the US Soccer task force understand the broad spectrum of sexuality.
It was not difficult. “By the time we got in the room, they were already pretty well versed on everything,” Carroll says.
The result was a draft of a policy that, Contiguglia says, can be boiled down to a few simple words: “We don’t discriminate. We accept who you say you are, so long as you follow the rules.”
The policy lists a variety of ways for players to identify themselves. Those include government documents like passports (which the United States issues to trans-identified individuals), and notes from doctors.
If there is a challenge to a player’s gender identity, it is heard immediately by a US Soccer-appointed committee. There are no intermediate steps, involving club, state and regional levels.
“It’s a self-determination policy,” Contiguglia says. “The bottom line is, we want all athletes to be able to play.”
The policy does not apply to national team members. As a member of both the IOC and FIFA – soccer’s international governing body – US Soccer must abide by their rules.
IOC policy says that an athlete must have undergone surgery to compete as a different gender. “The trend in the U.S. is toward chemical transition,” Contiguglia notes.
After US Soccer passed its policy – with only a few concerns from youth representatives – it was posted on the organization’s website. The next step is formal ratification by the national council at the upcoming Annual General Meeting. Contiguglia expects little opposition.
“As a physician, having had transgender patients, this was all pretty clear to me,” the committee chair says. “There were some misperceptions that someone born a male would have an unfair competitive advantage playing against girls. But that’s not true.”
As the coach of an Under-13 boys team, Contiguglia says, he regularly sees girls the same age who are “6 inches taller than our guys.”
An important part of US Soccer’s policy is educating its members about transgender issues. “We haven’t taken that step yet,” Contiguglia notes. “That comes next.”
“US Soccer did this the right way,” Carroll says. “They set up a task force and are going through the legislative process.
“They’re the first large sports organization to put a policy into place that includes all recreational athletes, in every state. I hope this is a model for all other organizations, and that when they look at it, they’ll see how well it works.”
Soccer’s national governing body was not looking to be a leader in transgender sports, Contiguglia says. But when the issue arose – thanks to Jazz in Florida – the organization responded.
So far, no other groups have asked for US Soccer’s advice. “This is not the only thing we do,” Contiguglia explains. “But I think it’s important we’ve done it. And we’re happy to share what we know with anyone who asks.”