The Virginia High School League (VHSL) voted 25-0 on Wednesday to approve a new policy that will allow transgender student athletes across the state to participate on the sports team that corresponds with their gender identity. Though the update is a great improvement over its previous policy, it comes with its own share of hurdles.
Back in February, the VHSL passed a policy requiring trans students to “undergo sex reassignment” surgery in order to qualify for the team that matches their gender. Because such surgery is only recommended for people who’ve reached the age of consent (18 in Virginia), few — if any — students would have ever benefited from the policy.
The new policy eliminates that strict requirement, allowing for any student who is verified as having “a consistent identity different than the gender listed on the student’s official birth certificate,” as well as for students who have already begun some form of hormone therapy. Still, the policy emphasizes that the gender identity must be “bona fide” and requires a process that involves a number of officials verifying that identity.
First, students must submit various documents to their principal or athletic director, including a written statement affirming their own gender identity; one or two letters from friends, parents, or teachers confirming that gender identity; a complete list of all treatments and medications; written verification from a health-care professional, and any other relevant documentation.
Then, the principal combines those documents with students’ current transcript and school registration information, adding his or her own determination that the student’s gender identity “is bona fide and not for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage in competitive athletics.” The principal submits those documents to the VHSL’s chairman in that district.
The three-member District Committee must then meet to review the materials, though the student does not have to be present. This is not the individual school district, but a VHSL “district,” which includes school officials from across multiple neighboring schools. The District Chairman “does not have to call a meeting until the request and all materials are filed.” Within 24 hours, the District Committee will provide the student with its recommendation for eligibility, then advance that recommendation to the VHSL Executive Director.
Once the Executive Director approves a request, students become immediately eligible. If not, they may appeal to the Executive Committee, who will consider it within 10 days. The Committee must vote in favor of the waiver by a two-thirds vote and cannot grant retroactive eligibility.
All of this must occur before the student is allowed to try out for any sport or participate in any practices. The process is intimidating, to say the least, and places the burden on students to prove their identities to a chain of individuals who do not necessarily have any expertise on transgender identities. Though the policy also includes a privacy statement, at least five different people have to consider whether students’ identities are “bona fide” before they can expect that identity to be respected. Fortunately, at least, the process does not have to be repeated.
The new policy directly conflicts with the best practices for transgender athletic policies, which recommend that policies should be “implemented within individual school districts at the individual school level.” Instead, Virginia’s policy requires that state-wide officials sign-off on verifying a student’s gender identity and then only a state-wide board can consider an appeal.
VHSL Executive Director Ken Tilley told ThinkProgress that he believes the new policy is “consistent with many other state associations” and a “sound policy” that’s “better for the students.” As for how his office will handle students’ requests, he explained that they’d be considered on a “case-by-case basis” and that he plans to consult with medical experts to ensure the documentation and criteria lead to the proper decision.
Helen Carroll, Sports Project Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, praised the policy, promising to ThinkProgress that “it is not difficult” for transgender students “to show the athletic League their gender identity is bona fide.” She proclaimed that “Virginia now joins those states that are the most inclusive in inviting their transgender girls and boys to join extracurricular activities including sports,” calling it a “good day for equality in the state of Virginia.”
A similar policy that was approved Thursday in Minnesota would allow individual schools to determine transgender students’ athletic eligibility. Even the appeals process in Minnesota’s plan begins at the local school board, only advancing to the State High School League if a second appeal is required.
VHSL’s new policy includes a note that it “honors and respects all individuals based on gender, gender identity, gender expression, race, sexual orientation, and creed while striving to provide safe and equitable competition.” While it’s good that Virginia’s transgender students now have a path to participate in athletics, it is a path laden with hurdles of doubt that do not reflect “honor and respect.”