The athletics community has been wading through issues and questions related to sexual orientation for many years. But these days, with increasing frequency, administrators are grappling with what Mount Holyoke College Director of Athletics Lori Priest calls the next frontier: transgender and transsexual student-athletes.
The topic received growing attention recently after a Bates College track and field student-athlete “came out” as transgender to the campus community and to fellow New England Small College Athletic Conference schools. Last year, the 11-time all-American thrower, who was born female, announced a preference to be referred to as male. The senior changed his name to Keelin Godsey (from Kelly) and requested that the male pronoun be used in casual conversation, as well in school press releases and publications, by professors, coaches and teammates.
Godsey’s announcement and the subsequent attention it drew caught some people by surprise, but the consensus is that there is more than a slim chance that at some point in the future an athletics administrator may have to navigate a situation with a transgender or transsexual student-athlete.
Transgender Law Center Director Chris Daley said it is difficult to tell just how widespread an issue it will become, but he noted that more college-age students are coming out and expecting to have their gender identity respected. Daley also said that an increasing number of students are transitioning from one gender to the other in high school with an eye toward being able to compete at the intercollegiate level.
In addition, states are beginning to include gender identity and gender expression in state nondiscrimination laws, and colleges and universities are starting to do the same with their own nondiscrimination guidelines, which means athletics departments will be responsible for complying with those laws and policies.
“Athletics directors who don’t take action to prepare for the possibility of transgender or transsexual student-athletes wanting to compete are going to put themselves in crisis mode,” said Pat Griffin, director of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s “It Takes A Team” educational campaign for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual issues in sport. “The smart ones are going to start investigating what they need to do and what the implications are, so when it does happen, they will be in a position to make good policy.”
One of the first steps athletics administrators can take is to become educated about transgender and transsexual people and their experiences.
According to an article Griffin penned for the “It Takes a Team” Web site, “transgender” is an umbrella term that describes individuals whose gender identity or expression does not conform to prevailing social expectations or whose gender identity or expression does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. “Transsexual” refers to someone who has transitioned from one gender to another and may include people who identify as neither man nor woman. Like in Godsey’s case, transition may involve a change in gender expression, name and pronoun preference. Transition frequently includes hormone therapy, counseling and surgery, which Godsey has yet to do.
“People mistakenly believe that being transgender is the same thing as being gay,” said
Griffin cited two major overarching issues related to athletics: balancing concern for creating a nondiscriminatory policy that addresses the needs of transgender student-athletes who want to compete, and addressing competitive-equity issues within the team and the sport.
As of 2003, no major sports organization had a policy pertaining to the participation of transgender people in athletics competition. Since then, though, several have established guidelines, including the International Olympic Committee, the United States Golf Association and USA Track and Field.
The NCAA allows transgender student-athletes to compete but does not keep statistics on the number who are involved in NCAA competition. The Association follows the gender classification of student-athletes’ state identification documents such as driver’s licenses and voter registration, as well as their conference and institution designation. In addition, per NCAA regulations, transgender student-athletes must compete in the gender classification reflected on state identification documents. For example, Godsey competed in this year’s Division III Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championships.
As for concerns about competitive equity, particularly in the case of males transitioning to females, the IOC policy requires athletes to wait two years, which according to some medical experts is enough time to minimize the effects of testosterone and to establish the normal range found in biological females.
The relatively small window for NCAA eligibility complicates the matter. Although the Association does not specifically identify a waiting period, NCAA rules require a team to be classified as a mixed team if a member of the opposite gender is permitted by an institution to compete on a gender-specific team. The team would retain that classification for the remainder of the academic year, rendering it ineligible for women’s championships.
Subject to institutional and conference participation guidelines, under the Association’s present rules, a male student-athlete who competes on the institution’s baseball team during one sport season and decides to transition during the offseason would be eligible to compete on the softball team the following season as long as that student-athlete is legally classified as female on appropriate state identification documents as required by state law. In addition, the team would remain eligible for the NCAA women’s championship.
Well-prepared athletics administrators also should ensure that appropriate locker room accommodations are made available for transgender and transsexual student-athletes. Priest said concerns about such space quickly came to the forefront on the Mount Holyoke campus.
“Being that we are a women’s college, we’ve had transgender students request use of the men’s locker room. It has caused issues on all sides — obviously with the male staff and faculty and the students themselves,” she said.
To resolve the issue, the school is planning to construct a smaller locker room area that will be designated as gender neutral and made available to transgender people. The area also will be accessible to others such as parents who need to assist their children who are of the opposite gender.
The Transgender Law Center’s Daley said he has not seen a case in which liability has been found for providing individuals with full access based on their gender identity.
“There’s a concern about making sure that a transsexual athlete who has equivalent access to a locker room could create some kind of privacy concern for nontransgender or nontranssexual athletes. What’s important is that we’ve found those claims generally don’t hold up,” said Daley. “We’ve seen cases where people have tried to say ‘I’m a nontransgender woman and I don’t want a transgender woman in the same restroom.’ Those cases are generally tossed pretty quickly.”
Other steps Mount Holyoke has taken include gathering athletics administrators and personnel from other campuses to talk about various approaches. The school also conducts one-on-one conversations with transgender students when they request different facilities as a way of receiving input and exchanging ideas and information with them. It is a move that has been positively received, according to Priest, who said the key is more education and recognizing the breadth of the human experience.
“We have put people in boxes for years and years, and what we’re finding is that with a more open and inclusive society, not everybody fits in those boxes and now we don’t know what to do with them,” she said. “We’ve been created in so many different ways and it’s not good or bad. We’re just more diverse than we originally thought.”
National Transgender Advocacy Coalition