LINCOLN — The governing body for Nebraska high school sports, after dropping the issue for two years, is moving forward with drafting a policy that governs participation by transgender athletes.
At least two transgender students have expressed interest in participating in winter sports this year, prompting the action by the Nebraska School Activities Association.
“It’s not ‘if,’ I’m pretty sure it’s ‘when,’ ” Jim Tenopir, the executive director of NSAA, said of the likelihood of a transgender student seeking to play sports.
The complicated, controversial and litigation-laden issue has prompted at least 38 states, including Iowa, to adopt policies to determine who can participate in which sports.
The policies are all over the board.
Some states, such as North Carolina and Georgia, are very restrictive, allowing students to participate only in sports that match up with the gender on their birth certificate.
Two states, Idaho and Georgia, require either hormone therapy for a period of time or an operation before a transgender student is allowed to participate in a sport for a gender other than the student’s birth gender.
Several states, including Iowa, are more permissive, allowing transgender students to participate if they can show that they “consistently” identify as a gender different from the one they were born as.
“They can’t be a boy part of the time and part of the time be a girl,” said Mike Dick of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, which governs girls sports in the Hawkeye State.
Iowa, unlike Nebraska, had some guidance in how to proceed: A state law in Iowa prohibits discriminatory practices in education, including extracurricular activities and athletics.
It’s too early to determine where Nebraska’s rules might fall, according to Jay Bellar, chairman of the governing board of the NSAA.
“To tell you what we’re thinking right now is premature because we haven’t been that far yet,” said Bellar, who is the superintendent of schools in Battle Creek, a rural town west of Norfolk. “We want to do what’s best for everybody.”
Right now, transgender students in Nebraska would only be allowed to participate in sports based on the gender on their birth certificate, with the exception of sports that aren’t offered for both genders, such as football and wrestling. Those sports, offered for boys, allow girls to compete, as well.
Bellar said it’s his understanding that the two requests from transgender students came from the Omaha metropolitan area.
Athletics officials with the Omaha Public Schools and Millard Public Schools did not respond to messages Friday. An OPS spokesman said the district has no policy concerning transgender students and sports.
Statewide, the issue is likely to be controversial, judging from a confusing attempt two years ago by the NSAA to adopt a policy.
In 2013, according to Rhonda Blanford-Green, who was then the NSAA executive director, the board had adopted a policy that allowed male students who identified as female to participate on a girls team (or vice versa), if they could show through statements by family members and a note from a doctor that they truly identified as a girl.
Later, however, NSAA officials said the policy hadn’t been voted on. And when a vote came up in August 2013, the board postponed a decision to seek more input from member high schools.
On Thursday, the NSAA board directed Tenopir to begin the task of drafting a proposed set of guidelines for schools involving transgender students wishing to play sports.
Tenopir said he plans to begin the process by talking to the groups and officials who have expressed interest in the issue. It could take a couple of months or longer before a policy is presented to the board for discussion, he said.
“We understand that not everyone is going to be in agreement on what the board needs to do,” Tenopir said. “The last time, it was a real lightning rod.”
Such a policy raises issues such as which locker rooms and restrooms a transgender student should use, what kind of clothing would be required of players and how to respect transgender students’ choices, including what name and pronoun they prefer.
It also raises issues of competitive imbalance. For instance, would a student born male have an advantage over students born female?
Tenopir said he has a lot of questions, but not addressing the issue, he said, risks expensive litigation.
“It’s our intention not to jump head-first without first determining what the policy should look like. We want not only to be fair to transgender students but fair to the other students,” Tenopir said. “There are a lot of components here.”
Two groups that expressed concerns about the 2013 policy discussion already have their radar up about the new discussion.
A representative of the Nebraska Family Alliance attended Thursday’s NSAA board meeting. A representative of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said he was aware of the meeting and was monitoring the situation.
Officials from both groups said it was premature to comment on a policy that hasn’t been drafted.
But Al Riskowski of the Family Alliance issued a statement that all students need to be treated with kindness, dignity and respect.
“Schools should craft policies that are both respectful of the privacy concerns of all children and sensitive to the diverse needs of individual children,” Riskowski said. “Schools can accommodate a small number of students with different needs without compromising the rights of other children and their parents.”
Amy Miller, legal director for the ACLU of Nebraska, said that all students — including transgender students — should have the opportunity to participate in sports in public schools.
“Participation in extracurricular activities, including athletics, is often an important part of a student’s existence,” Miller said in a statement. “It is clear that a school which does not allow transgender students to participate in athletics is in violation of Title IX.”
Miller said the ACLU recently provided a guidebook on meeting the needs of transgender students to schools across the country.
In Iowa, state high school athletics officials said they were not aware of any transgender students who have participated in sports in recent years, though they had fielded some inquiries about the issue.
A Nebraska state senator who introduced legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity said he is monitoring the issue.
Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld said his proposal, Legislative Bill 586, concerns employment and would not provide guidance in the realm of high school sports participation.
“But it’s certainly an emerging issue that I’ll be looking at,” Morfeld said. “People should be treated equally and fairly.”
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