In a determination sending a nationwide message against transgender inclusion in sports, the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has concluded the participation of two transgender athletes in the girls' school track league in Connecticut violated civil rights law.
The 47-page letter of impending enforcement action, which was first reported Thursday, determines the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference effectively "placed female student-athletes in athletic events against male student-athletes, resulting in competitive disadvantages for female student-athletes."
As such, the letter concludes Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and state school districts were "in violation of the regulation implementing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972."
The letter, written by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, gives CIAC and six Connecticut school districts until June 4 to change their policies, threatening to "initiate administrative proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue" financial assistance or refer the matter to the Justice Department for judicial proceedings.
The conclusion flies in the face of widespread belief among civil rights advocates that Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools, prohibits anti-trans discrimination, not enables it, including in school sports.
Further, the letter sends a signal to other schools with transgender-inclusive policies they may be in violation of the law — at least as interpreted by the Trump administration — and may be at risk of losing federal funds.
Chase Strangio, a transgender advocate and staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Department of Education's finding is "not a legal ruling" and "represents another attack from the Trump administration on transgender students."
"Since 2017, DeVos' Department of Education has taken consistent aim at transgender students," Strangio said. "Once again, the administration is wrong on the law and we will continue to defend transgender students under Title IX and the Constitution. Trans students belong in our schools, including on sports teams, and we will not back down from this fight."
In an organizational statement, CIAC said it decided its policy on allowing transgender athletes to participate in girls' sports based on civil rights law, citing the determination from the Obama administration that anti-trans discrimination violates Title IX.
"Connecticut law is clear and students who identify as female are to be recognized as female for all purposes — including high school sports," the statement says. "To do otherwise would not only be discriminatory but would deprive high school students of the meaningful opportunity to participate in educational activities, including inter-scholastic sports, based on sex-stereotyping and prejudice sought to be prevented by Title IX and Connecticut state law."
In response to an email inquiry from the Washington Blade on whether CIAC intends to comply with the Department of Education's directive by the June 4 deadline, a spokesperson said the organization is awaiting the outcome of separate ongoing litigation in the matter.
"CIAC looks forward to obtaining a ruling about whether Title IX prohibits states from permitting transgender females from participation in girls high school track and field events after the facts and legal considerations have been fully presented and reviewed," said Joel Cookson, a CIAC spokesperson.
The Department of Education investigation came about after the anti-LGBTQ legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom in June 2019 filed a complaint on behalf of three girls who lost a track event to two transgender athletes — Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller — who had recently transitioned.
In the complaint, the three girls — Selina Soule, Alanna Smith and Chelsea Mitchell — allege they were made ineligible for college athletic scholarship they might have otherwise been able to obtain if the transgender athletes hadn't participated.
As reported by the Washington Blade, internal emails from within the Department of Education reveal attorneys at the Office of Civil Rights were rushed to take up the complaint under pressure from Trump administration officials.
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement the Department of Education's findings in the case were a victory.
"Girls shouldn't be reduced to spectators in their own sports," Holcomb said. "We're encouraged that the Department of Education has officially clarified that allowing males to compete in the female category isn't fair, destroys girls' athletic opportunities, and clearly violates federal law. Males will always have inherent physical advantages over comparably talented and trained girls — that's the reason we have girls' sports in the first place."
Alliance Defending Freedom also alleged in its complaints the Connecticut schools threatened retaliation against the families of the girls, but the Office of Civil Rights determined "there was insufficient evidence" to substantiate that.
Chelsea Mitchell, one of the female athletes who challenged the district's trans-inclusive policy, said in a statement "she's extremely happy and relieved to learn that OCR found the CIAC and the school districts violated Title IX."
"It feels like we are finally headed in the right direction, and that we will be able to get justice for the countless girls along with myself that have faced discrimination for years," Mitchell said. "It is liberating to know that my voice, my story, my loss, has been heard; that those championships I lost mean something. Finally, the government has recognized that women deserve the right to compete for victory, and nothing less."
Unlike major sports leagues, such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the policy as laid out in the CIAC handbook doesn't require transgender athletes to take testosterone-suppressing hormones and relies solely on the student and her school for gender identification.
The Department of Education makes the determination in the case as separate litigation brought by Alliance Defending Freedom against CIAC's trans-inclusive is underway in federal court. The ACLU has sought to intervene on behalf of the transgender student athletes in the lawsuit, which is pending before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said in response a Blade inquiry the Trump administration would led the letter "speak for itself."
The White House didn't respond to the Washington Blade's request to comment on whether President Trump agrees with the Department of Education's determination.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.