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September 2, 2014

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gender issues:

Policy would pave way for transgender athletes to participate in Nevada high school sports

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Sam Morris

Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association director Eddie Bonine during a May 2012 meeting.

The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association had never fielded an inquiry like this one.

It came during the summer. The question: Would a transgender athlete be eligible to participate in high school sports?

It wasn’t a hypothetical situation. The athlete, a Reno high school student who identified with being female, wanted to participate on a girls volleyball team.

For Eddie Bonine, NIAA executive director, there was no clear answer. The association had no policy in place to determine the student's eligibility.

That could change today.

During the association’s Board of Control meeting in Reno, the nine-member board will vote on adopting a position statement paving the way to allow transgender athletes to participate on teams based on the gender with which they identify.

Six years after Washington’s activities association became the first in the nation to adopt such a policy, Bonine expects Nevada to follow suit. If that happens, Nevada will join 15 to 20 other state associations with a protocol for granting eligibility to transgender athletes.

“We needed something in place so if anything came forward we would have a living, breathing document to give our office guidance on what our position was with participation,” Bonine said.

The process would require medical documentation and a statement from the student and parents on gender identity, said Paul Anderson, legal counsel for the NIAA. A three-person panel that includes a medical professional would determine eligibility.

The policy would mirror what’s already in place in Washington and other states.

In those policies, the procedure toward gaining eligibility begins with the parents notifying the school in writing that the athlete’s consistent gender identity is different than the gender on his or her birth certificate.

The student’s physician or psychologist will confirm the student’s consistent gender identification and expression with a written statement. Others, such as friends or teachers, could provide statements affirming the gender identity the student self-relates.

“They’ll make sure things are on the up and up, and that it’s a legit situation and not someone who didn’t make the boys basketball team,” Anderson said.

After seeing a presentation on equal participation for transgender athletes during a national meeting for directors in January, Bonine placed a discussion item on the association’s March agenda to start establishing a position. It was discussed further during a summer board meeting.

The transgender athlete from Northern Nevada has since moved out of state and isn’t expected back, Bonine said. But the instance was an eye-opener — Nevada needed a policy.

“We are trying to be ahead of the curve,” Bonine said.

Mike Colbrese, the Washington association’s executive director, is frequently contacted by colleagues at other state associations looking for guidance in establishing a transgender policy. He spoke at a past Nevada board meeting, sharing some of the trials of being the first state to develop a policy.

The initial draft of Washington’s policy required gender reassignment surgery for a transgender athlete to be eligible. But after receiving input from gay-and-transgender-rights groups, the policy was amended to allow eligibility in the gender with which the athlete identifies.

“The first thing (he suggested to the NIAA) is to consult with the experts, the people really committed to fairness and really committed that every kid has an opportunity,” Colbrese said.

Most associations have a policy similar to Washington’s. Colbrese said just one athlete — a basketball player petitioning to join the girls team in 2010 — has applied in Washington, but that student was ruled academically ineligible before the association could start its process. Three transgender athletes have applied in Colorado, Bonine said.

“It’s not like we are reinventing the wheel over here,” Anderson said of developing the Nevada policy. “We have a template we can go off of. They (Washington) have dealt with it.”

A spokesperson for the Clark County School District says transgender students aren’t tracked in the district. Southern Nevada has about 25,000 to 50,000 transgender residents, says Mel Goodwin, the program director at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. Goodwin doesn’t know what percent are teenagers.

Last month in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state law protecting rights for transgender students. The law gives transgender athletes the right to choose the locker room they want to use and whether they compete on boys or girls teams.

Critics in California said some transgender athletes would be at an advantage biologically. That’s another point the Washington policy addresses.

An athlete who has started hormone therapy in Washington is eligible for only boys teams; hormone supplementation doesn’t violate the association performance-enhancing policy if it's under supervision of a physician.

Goodwin praised the NIAA for developing a policy geared to equal participation but said its job isn’t finished. The hard part, Goodwin said, is spreading the word to transgender students so they know there is an opportunity to participate.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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