Virginia became the most recent in a growing number of states with transgender-inclusive sports policies Wednesday when its governing body of high school sports unanimously approved the participation of transgender athletes in sports based on the gender with which they identify.
"It is a reality that there are transgender students who are interested in participating in athletics," Ken Tilley, executive director of the Virginia High School League, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "It's something we recognize we need to be of service to our schools and our students."
While at least 10 other states have policies specifically allowing transgender athletes to participate in sports not restricted to their birth sex, Virginia's policy is perhaps one of the most restrictive policies to date, says Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
To be in check with the league's policy, the student must have undergone sex reassignment, and if the surgery was completed after puberty, the student must also continually take hormonal therapy. Otherwise, the student would be required to participate in the sport aligned with his or her birth gender.
"It is definitely among the more restrictive policies, and probably not realistic in terms of where high school athletes generally are in their transition," Byard says. "It’s not actually even typical, necessarily, of the policies that we do know of from other athletic associations."
Although the action is "part of an encouraging trend across the country," Byard says, it's unrealistic for a number of reasons, one of which is that the Commonwealth of Virginia itself has no anti-discrimination policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In fact, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, Virginia is one of 29 states with no such legal protections.
Despite that fact, several states or state athletic associations in the last three to five years have taken it upon themselves to enact policies meant to create more inclusive environments for transgender high school athletes.
The athletic policy in Nebraska, for example, is much less restrictive than that of Virginia's in that it does not require the same actions of students to maintain their eligibility. This policy requires transgender students in Nebraska to provide expert testimony to support their gender identity claims.
But Nebraska is also a state that does not have LGBT anti-discrimination laws. On the other hand, states like California, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, Maine and Connecticut have state LGBT anti-discrimination laws, as well as policies that relate specifically to transgender high school athletes.
"One of the things I'm sure families and schools are quite concerned about is making sure transgender students have the opportunity to participate in school life without being singled out, without having their privacy violated," Byard says. "But to have an advance in the state where protections are uneven and where the issue of nondiscrimination is completely unsettled could be particularly volatile in a way that is of grave concern."
"Virginia is an interesting place to see this play out, as is Nebraska, and I think it's a really important development that we have to continue to monitor," Byard adds.