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Transgender athletes to face fewer barriers to compete under new policy

May 15—A decade ago, when Leo Eichfeld, who is transgender, wanted to compete on the boys' swim team at Mt. Ararat High School, he had to present his case to a board of school administrators.

They asked to see a doctor's note and the swimsuit he planned to wear, as well as how he would bind his chest.

It felt like an interrogation to face the panel from the Maine Principals' Association, he said.

"This high schooler sat in front of I don't even know (how many) principals, kind of talking to me and asking me questions about my identity," said Eichfeld, who is now 23. "That was intimidating. It was an infringement on my medical privacy."

Transgender athletes no longer have to go through that process because the principals' association — the organization that oversees Maine high school sports — updated its "Gender Identity Participation Policy" to follow state law.

The policy, which abides by the Maine Human Rights Act, allows transgender athletes to compete on teams either according to their birth-assigned gender or gender identity, but not both at the same time. It leaves it to the schools to handle their request to compete on boys or girls teams.

The act, as amended in 2021, states that the opportunity to participate in "all educational ... and all extracurricular activities without discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, a physical or mental disability, ancestry, national origin, race, color or religion is recognized and declared to be a civil right."

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The principals' association is instructing schools to follow state law, said Mike Bisson, the organization's assistant director. He calls the new rule, developed with the help of lawyers, "a policy that meets the law."

The association's policy takes itself out of a contentious debate, but the agency's directors said that was necessary.

SCHOOLS KNOW STUDENTS BEST

"The schools know the kids the best," Bisson said. "They are the ones that need to work with their students."

According to the new policy, a transgender athlete looking to participate in high school competition "must declare their gender identity to their member school if their gender identity differs from the student's sex assigned at birth." The school, the policy states, has "the sole authority to determine gender identity assignment for the purposes of athletic registration and participation."

Cony High School Athletic Director T.J. Maines said any decision involving which team a transgender athlete prefers to play on would include that school's principal and the district superintendent.

The new policy was approved by the association's full membership Wednesday.

Until April 2023, the principals' association required transgender athletes to obtain waivers from its now-disbanded Gender Identity Equity Committee. Between 2013 and 2023, there were 57 hearings and all the transgender students who asked for waivers got them.

But the process was hard for students like Eichfeld, who had to show the panel of principals things he thought were private. The new policy states that "no medical records or official documents shall be requested or required to establish a student's gender identity."

Whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in sports remains a hotly debated issue across the country. It gained attention in Maine last fall when transgender runner Soren Stark-Chessa competed in — and won — a girls cross country championship race.

Nationwide, 25 states ban transgender youth from participating in school sports, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that tracks gender equality issues nationwide. The New Hampshire state Senate is set to vote this week on a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating on girls' sports teams.

Some state restrictions have been challenged in court. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently blocked West Virginia's law barring transgender athletes from playing on teams in accordance with their gender identity.

In April, the Biden administration finalized new rules that expanded the prohibition of sexual discrimination under Title IX to include gender identity. The rules don't cover athletics, but a regulation that would determine how schools could exclude transgender students from women's and girls' teams is under review, The Associated Press reported.

SOME SEE A POSITIVE STEP

Some gender-equality advocates, as well as some high school coaches, say the Maine Principals' Association policy is a positive step. Others say it doesn't go far enough.

Most of the coaches and school administrators contacted by the Press Herald did not return calls seeking comment on the policy.

Gia Drew, the executive director of EqualityMaine, said the association's previous policy was a form of discrimination.

"Maybe the previous policy provided an opportunity, unfortunately, for that advisory committee to discriminate. I don't think they ever did," Drew said. "(But) it may have prevented some athletes from going through that process because it was something other athletes didn't have to do. Why are there more hurdles or more barriers for LGBTQ students to play sports versus non-LGBTQ students? ... Why aren't you asking this of everybody? Why are you asking this specifically of transgender people?

"This (new policy) is more inviting. ... It looks like it's going in the right direction in terms of trying to make sure it's inclusive. It follows Maine law and it provides opportunities for schools to understand what the policy is."

Sue Campbell, the executive director of OUT Maine, an LGBTQ+ support organization, said schools should have more clarity.

"It appears to be that (the MPA is) putting the ball, so to speak, back in the schools' court, but sending the direct message that students can play on a team based on their gender identity, and schools should support that," she said. "I think it just puts it in writing. I don't think it's changed the direction. For some schools, it might make them aware that the policy's changed."

Jen Boudreau, the Gardiner Area High School cross-country and track and field coach, acknowledged that the current setup can put pressure on the schools to make controversial decisions regarding transgender students and the teams for which they play.

"I think so, but it shouldn't. It shouldn't be an issue," she said. "I think it does put a little more pressure on the schools, but what topic today doesn't? ... Schools are pretty used to making decisions and standing by them."

Bisson, the principals' association assistant director, said it was important for transgender athletes to have the option to play for either the team corresponding with their identity or with their birth-assigned gender.

MAKING KIDS COMFORTABLE

"We want kids to feel comfortable, and we want them, if they're worried about the controversy or drawing attention, to have that option to participate as their gender assigned at birth," he said. "I don't think people would argue with that."

Even though the law supports their participation and choice of team, Campbell said the school and surrounding community could affect how eager transgender athletes are to pursue their sport.

"We see schools who adopt transgender student policies that are following the law, but sometimes how they get put into practice isn't always the same from school to school," Campbell said. "And some schools ... and their culture and communities may be challenging spaces for our young people to live in, so they may not even choose to put themselves out there because they don't feel safe enough to do so."

Falmouth High junior Dahlia Verrill, who ran cross country last fall, said she saw firsthand the animosity transgender athletes — particularly transgender girls — can face, when she and Stark-Chessa competed at the Festival of Champions in Belfast in September.

"There was so much hate surrounding her, it was awful," Verrill said. "We were watching the race, she ran by and this mother said, 'Oh look, the boys' race started.' Things like that, just these sly little comments, and there was so much of that."

Verrill said she's in favor of transgender athletes being able to play on teams according to their identity, and that the notion that those athletes are trying to exploit a physical advantage is exaggerated.

"People often forget the fact that not every transgender woman was a 6-foot-4, 250-pound male at one point. I feel like that's a lot of times what people envision, and that's their argument," she said. "People act like transgender women are doing this to get an advantage in women's sports, and I could never understand why anybody would think that someone would completely 180 their entire life and change their identity just to have an upper hand in a sport."

For his part, Eichfeld, now an after-school support teacher, sees hope but also challenges ahead.

"I appreciate the language, how they give definitions for gender identity, transgender, cisgender, nonbinary identities, and I appreciate that they eliminate the hearing process," he said of the new policy. "It removes that level of ostracization and alienation from the student."

But he still worries about the safety of transgender athletes.

"This policy is an improvement, but at the heart of this issue is the culture within the school that either supports all students, if they're transgender or cisgender, or if they're falling short," Eichfeld said. "Teachers and coaches and administrative staff need to be well-trained and well-versed in transgender rights and how to keep transgender students safe.

"The issue of transphobia in schools goes beyond sports policies. This is a step in the right direction, but absolutely, there's more work to be done."

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