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An Emerging Issue: The Transgender Student-Athlete in Interscholastic Athletics

By Peg Pennepacker, CAA on November 10, 2015 hst Print

The transgender student-athlete has become the focus as the next group of young people that can benefit from participation in interscholastic athletics programs. As society continues to evolve and the acceptance of transgender student-athletes becomes a reality in many high schools across the country, the challenge for schools will be to develop policy that offers fair treatment and opportunities for these students to participate in the school’s interscholastic athletics programs.

As the number of young people transitioning from elementary schools, middle schools and high schools increases, leaders in schools across the country can assume that some of them will want to participate in school athletic programs. During this stage of embracing the transgender student-athlete, schools are simultaneously faced with the challenge of providing opportunities for these student-athletes and dealing with the challenges that are presented.

Policy development may be the main priority of schools as they try to understand how to treat these student-athletes in a fair and equitable manner. Currently, only a few school sport organizations have adopted policies addressing inclusion of transgender athletes. Many more are beginning to explore the issue and to recognize the need for such policies.

Additionally, 13 states have enacted laws that protect these students from discrimination based on their gender identity. Developing fair and informed policies in a proactive fashion will ensure that school athletic programs are prepared to offer transgender student-athletes the same benefits of team sport participation as enjoyed by all the district’s athletes.

When developing a policy to address the transgender student, schools may want to consider some of the following elements:

  1. Privacy and Confidentiality – Transgender students have the right to discuss their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression openly and to decide when, with whom and how much private information to share with others. School personnel should not disclose information that may reveal a student-athlete’s sexual orientation or transgender status to others unless legally required to do so, or unless the individual has expressly authorized such disclosure.
  2. Names and Pronouns – A student has the right to be addressed by a name and pronoun that corresponds to his or her gender identity. Whether or not a court-ordered name or gender change is required may depend on the laws of the state or athletic association.
  3. Official Records and Communication – The school district should maintain a mandatory Student Record that includes a student’s legal name and the sex of the student. This section would also address any requirements under the Vital Statistics Act. When required by law, staff or administrators would use a transgender student’s legal name, sex or gender for purposes of standardized testing or attendance records and practices should avoid the inadvertent disclosure of such confidential information. In general, all school forms and databases should be updated to ensure a student’s preferred or chosen name can be accurately recorded on class lists, student files and identification documents.
  4. Transferring a Student to Another School – Whenever possible, school administration should attempt to keep transgender students at their original school site. School transfers should not be the school’s first response to harassment and should only be considered when necessary for the protection or personal welfare of the student, or when requested by the student or the student’s parents. The problem is often not the transgender student, but the culture of transphobia and ensuing harassment that must be addressed at the school level.
  5. Gender-Segregated Activities – Schools should reduce or eliminate the practice of segregating students by gender. In situations where students may be separated by gender, such as health education, all students should be given the opportunity to be included in the group that corresponds to their consistently asserted gender identity.
  6. Athletics, Locker Rooms, Change Room Access and Accommodation – All students – regardless of their gender identity – should be able to participate in interscholastic athletics in a safe, inclusive, affirming and respectful environment. Schools should proactively review their student athletic policies to ensure they are inclusive of transgender students. All athletic policies and procedures should enable all student-athletes to compete free from discrimination or harassment and should have access to locker room facilities. In circumstances that require a student to undress in front of others, students who desire additional privacy, for any reason (e.g., medical, religious, cultural and gender identity) should be provided the accommodations that meet their individual and privacy needs. Such accommodations could include, but are not limited to, use of a private changing area such as a washroom, staffroom, nurse’s or physical education office, or the development of a separate or modified changing schedule.
  7. Restroom Accessibility – Students should have access to the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity consistently asserted at the school. If a student has the need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, he or she should be provided access to a single stall restroom.
  8. Dress Codes – Students should have the right to dress in the manner consistent with their gender identity. Schools should not adopt dress codes that restrict students’ clothing or appearances solely based on the student’s gender identity, or other inalienable characteristics of the individual.
  9. Resolving Conflict – If a dispute arises with regard to a transgender student’s participation in educational or athletic activities, the resolution should involve the transgender student in the decision-making process. In general, the principles of ensuring reasonable accommodation, maximizing inclusiveness, and addressing the best interests of the student should be the guiding framework used to assist in this collaborative decision-making process by all involved.
  10. Other Considerations – IEP or 504 Plans – Special education laws should not be a replacement for strong, explicit school policies that support transgender students, but serve as a vehicle or tool to provide the added services and supports some transgender students may need to learn and be successful.

Athletics administrators and coaches can and should take proactive steps in supporting transgender student-athletes by educating themselves and their schools about issues related to full inclusion of these students in the life of their teams before the first transgender student chooses to participate. When a student-athlete approaches a staff member to gain support in playing interscholastic sports, school policies should be in place and the district can welcome the transgender student-athlete into a collaborative dialogue that assures their fair, equitable and safe participation. 

Schools in Transition: A Guide to Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools; www.genderspectrum.org
Trans-Athlete; www.transathlete.com
Supporting Transgender And Transsexual Students In K-12 Schools: A Guide for Educators; http://gendercreativekids.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Supporting-Transgender-and-Transsexual-Students-web.pdf
Best Practices for Serving Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students in Schools; http://www.masstpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/MTPC-2013-K-12-Best-Practices.pdf
On The Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student Athletes: http://www.nclrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TransgenderStudentAthleteReport.pdf
Participation of Transgender Athletes in Women’s Sports; www.womenssportsfoundation.org
Transgender Law and Policy Institute; www.transgenderlaw.org
National Center for Transgender Equity; www.nctequality.org
Transgender Law Center; www.transgenderlawcenter.org