It was 10 years ago this spring the WIAA recognized a need for a policy involving gender identity to provide inclusion in its activities. The rule in the WIAA’s handbook was the first of its kind in the country for high-school sports.
Policies aren’t often written about.
They’re devised in a room, printed on paper, bound in a handbook or manual and many times aren’t thought about again. But one does merit mentioning for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.
It was 10 years ago this spring the organization recognized a need for a policy involving gender identity to provide inclusion in its activities. The rule in the WIAA’s handbook under “Student Standards for Interscholastic Eligibility” was the first of its kind in the country for high-school sports.
“Washington prides itself on providing an opportunity that’s fair and consistent for our students,” said Mike Colbrese, the longtime WIAA executive director. “This policy is just one of the indications that we do that.”
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According to the website TransAthlete.com, Washington is now one of 17 states to have a fully inclusive policy. Seven states have discriminatory policies, including Texas, which recently made national news because a wrestler born female and transitioning to male was forced to compete with the gender indicated on his birth certificate despite having begun a hormonal transition.
Texas’ rule, passed in 2016 by 95 percent of its member-schools superintendents, makes advocates for transgender athletes in Washington cringe. But the WIAA’s rule was problematic at first, too.
In 2007, four schools across the state called the Renton offices of the WIAA at separate times looking for guidance because students questioning their identity were also interested in participating in sports.
Colbrese worked quickly with his staff to form a policy used in the 2007-08 handbook. It blended criteria set by the United States Olympic Committee and the NCAA.
However, those policies required surgeries before puberty, hormonal therapy and in some cases a two-year wait to compete. These were considered convoluted guidelines too steep for a child and assumed that transgender equated surgery.
“Within a few months, the Human Rights Commission contacted us and said they had some people concerned about the policy (and) would you mind if we got together some folks and took a look at it,” Colbrese recalled. “We said no, where were you six months ago? We would have loved some help then.”
Aidan Key, who is based in Seattle and is now the director of Gender Diversity, was one of the people gathered to revise the WIAA’s policy in February 2008. He was one of four transgender people in the room, seated between a lawyer for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Both organizations had drafted policies they felt the WIAA should implement. While Key and Colbrese said everyone was working together to craft an inclusive guideline, there were still passionate debates. A moderator helped facilitate the roundtable discussion between 10 people.
Although surgical requirements were unanimously rejected, body-mass index criteria and medical documentation were suggested. The biggest obstacle was trying to encompass every facet of being transgender — an umbrella term to describe people whose gender identity does not match what was assigned at birth.
“It was like watching a tennis match, back and forth,” Key said. “At some point, I raised my hand, which was ignored for a really long time, I’ll never forget it. … We had discussed the generalized notion that a student participates in the gender team that aligns with their gender identity, not so much their body. It was a foundation, yet everyone was trying desperately to find a way that could address all variables. When I was able to say something, it was that there’s no way. There’s too many variables.”
Medical coverage, acceptance, preference and finances are just a few factors that could be involved in a young transgender athlete’s journey. How can one policy cover that?
Ultimately, it was decided for the 2008-09 handbook the student-athlete would be assigned a liaison to present their case to a WIAA panel for approval. Colbrese said that part was omitted in August 2016 after the Department of Justice and Department of Education sent letters to all athletic associations with its suggestions.
As the current rule sits — Section 18.15.0 in the WIAA handbook — no surgeries or hormones are required and no proof is needed. A panel would only be involved if participation in a sex-segregated sport was challenged by anyone.
Colbrese said three known transgender athletes have competed in WIAA sports since 2007.
Key celebrates the policy and its historical significance. But his goal through his own outreach is to push the conversation further. One vision is omitting gender as a form of classifying sports.
“I’ve seen a lot of things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” he said, pointing to pro women’s leagues. “It could happen that we compete based on skill level. We have a precedent set for it. There’s a lot of intramural, coed teams with different levels of athletic competition — some are goofy and having fun and some are much more competitive.
“So we already have it in place, we just don’t recognize that we’re creating these environments. We’re still using gender as a shortcut to accomplishing the kind of environments that we want, which makes an assumption that women aren’t competitive or have a high enough skill level. It’s just not true.”