AUGUSTA, Maine — Dick Durost was attending a national conference a few years ago when the idea of developing a policy to facilitate transgender high school students participating in interscholastic sports came to the forefront.
By March 2013, Maine was one of a handful of states across the country with a transgender participation policy after its approval by the the general membership of the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees interscholastic sports in the state.
“At that time, Colorado was in the process of putting together a policy and several New England states, including Connecticut and Vermont and us, started to have the conversation about getting in front of this issue,” said Durost, the Maine Principals’ Association’s executive director.
“We felt it just made good sense to put good policy in place without the emotion that would go with having a particular student be the one coming forward and requesting to do this,” he said.
Momentum for such policies has continued to grow during the last two years, with the Minnesota State High School League’s vote in March to open up girls sports to transgender student-athletes marking the 33rd state to adopt a transgender student participation policy. Minnesota law already had permitted girls to compete in boys sports.
“Certainly it’s been a rather common topic at [National Federation of State High School Association] meetings,” said Durost, “and I think we’ve tried to give the same advice to other states.
“That was to hopefully get in front of this before you had a court case or those kinds of things so you could adopt policy for policy’s sake. I think as a result that’s the approach most states have taken,” he said.
Maine Principals’ Association attorney Meg LePage, a partner with Pierce Atwood in Portland, studied the few state high school policies that existed at the time as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s policy and other related literature in helping to develop Maine’s transgender student-athlete plan.
“We created a presumption that a transgender student would be able to participate on the team that the student identified with,” she said, “but also a process that would ensure that the policy couldn’t be misused to gain some sort of athletic advantage, so there is a requirement that the student make an application and go to a confidential meeting where they demonstrate that this is a bona fide request and not something that is being easily manipulated.”
Under the Maine policy, a student and-or parent or guardian may notify the school administrator or athletic administrator that the student has a consistent gender identity different than the birth-assigned gender or gender listed on the student’s registration records and desires to participate in activities in a manner consistent with the student’s gender identity.
The school then requests a hearing with the Maine Principals’ Association Gender Identity Equity Committee, which consists of four present or former high school principals and assistant principals and may also include a medical professional with experience in gender identity health care and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health standards of care.
“In a lot of cases, the medical piece is probably not necessary,” said LePage, “particularly when you’re talking about female-to-male transgender and even in a lot of male-to-female situations when the student is maybe taking hormones and does not have an athletic advantage.”
A confidential hearing is held within seven business days of the request, and the Gender Identity Equity panel will grant the student’s request to participate unless it is convinced the student’s claim to be transgender is not bona fide or that allowing the student to compete on a single-sex team consistent with his or her gender identity likely would give the student-athlete an unfair athletic advantage or pose an unacceptable risk of physical injury to other student-athletes.
“It works for us,” Durost said, “but that doesn’t mean all the states that have done this have put in that health-and-safety or competitive-balance piece. Colorado had that originally, and we kind of like to have that safety net as part of our policy.”
LePage was alerted to potential competitive-balance issues during her research when she combined all the results of a recent year’s Maine boys and girls state championship cross-country meet.
LePage said she was surprised to learn that the fastest girls time of the day — turned in by a runner who went on to earn a Division I athletic scholarship — would have placed her about 95th in the overall standings when boys times also were included.
“Boys and girls are different, and that was part of the thinking in wanting to have that check,” she said.
Approval of the student-athlete’s eligibility is binding on all Maine Principals’ Association member schools and valid through the duration of the student’s high school career unless the Gender Identity Equity Committee explicitly states that the approval is for a shorter period — which would come only in cases where it is reasonably foreseeable that the student-athlete’s athletic advantage or the risk of injury to others may increase as the athlete matures.
If the request is denied, the student or student’s school may appeal to the Maine Principals’ Association Interscholastic Management Committee, with the committee’s written decision to be final and binding on all parties.
Three transgender students in Maine have gained approval to participate on interscholastic sports teams since the Maine Principals’ Association’s policy was enacted. Two currently are on teams, Durost said.
“It’s been remarkably smooth,” he said, “and I think it says a lot about this generation of students who are probably much more accepting of others than certainly 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
“That doesn’t mean, certainly, that there’s never been any issues at any of the schools, but from my understanding schools, the adults in the schools and then the vast, vast majority of the students are very supportive of having each individual be who they are.”
Durost said based on his conversations with school administrators, other transgender students have considered seeking sports eligibility but have not yet taken that final step.
“I would feel very safe in saying there isn’t a high school in the state that doesn’t have transgender students, but it doesn’t necessarily mean all of them want to play sports,” he said.
“And, frankly, I think it takes a certain amount of courage to put yourself out there into an athletic event making a statement that this is who I am,” he added.