As school boards in the province work to formulate LGBTQ inclusion policies that address the subject of transgender students participating in extracurricular activities, the provincial association that oversees high school sports has already had such a policy in place for nearly a year and hasn’t experienced any problems.
In May 2015, after about 18 months of research and discussion, the board of the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA) passed a policy that allows transgender athletes to participate in gender-segregated sports according to their lived gender identity.
So far the policy has generated a few inquiries as well as a number of complaints, but there haven’t been any problems in the sports arena, said executive director John Paton.
“The reality so far is we haven’t had more than four situations, that we are aware of, of transgender students who are participating in school sport. The numbers may be much higher, but at this point we’re not monitoring it school to school because it’s an individual issue; it’s a school issue; it’s a human rights issue,” Paton said.
The ASAA is a voluntary organization that co-ordinates school athletic activities. Its membership currently comprises 373 high schools. Its policy is in line with guidelines released in January by Education Minister David Eggen that aim to help school boards formulate policies to ensure their schools are caring and safe places that respect diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.
Eggen has given school boards until the end of the month to formulate policies that ensure the inclusion of LGBTQ students.
Paton said he’s received a few calls and emails from people who are concerned, with the main concern being the idea of having transgender girls competing with and against cisgender girls (girls who are born girls and identify as girls). A common belief is that because transgender girls are born boys, they have a physiological advantage over athletes who are born girls (i.e., are bigger and stronger).
However, Paton said no such problems have been reported, and he doesn’t anticipate any.
“To our knowledge, it’s not going to manifest itself into physical harm to female athletes that might have a transgender female on their team,” he said.
This concern about transgender girls is common throughout North America and is based on an inaccurate stereotype that all boys are bigger, stronger and more athletically gifted than all girls, said Dr. Patricia Griffin, a professor emeritus with the University of Massachusetts, who is a recognized expert in gender and sexual orientation in sports. Griffin has helped numerous jurisdictions, including the National Collegiate Athletics Association, formulate policies for transgender athletes.
“There is no research to support the contention that enabling a transgender girl to play on a girls’ team creates a competitive imbalance,” Griffin wrote in an article published by the National Federation of State High School Associations in the U.S.
In a phone interview, Griffin elaborated that there is tremendous overlap in the heights, weights and athletic abilities of boys and girls of high school age. She added that athletes of varying sizes already compete with and against each other in many sports. Given this, it’s not reasonable to assume that transgender athletes have an unfair advantage over non-transgender athletes or pose a safety risk, she said.
“Until we have evidence that having transgender students play according to their identity creates some kind of performance inequity or safety problem, I think we need to err on the side of allowing students to participate according to their gender identities,” Griffin said.
She said that resistance to this idea is rooted in a lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender, so there’s a lingering belief that someone who is born male, but identifies as female, is really a boy.
“A [female] student who was assigned male at birth ... does not identify as a male, she identifies as a female,” Griffin said. “It would be just as disturbing for that student to be referred to as a boy as it would be for any other student who is not transgender.”
She added that the focus of high school sports should be on providing a good educational experience.
“It should be a good educational experience for all students, not just some students,” she said.
The ASAA’s John Paton believes that fear is behind a lot of the concern about transgender athletes.
“Like many things that are new and maybe unexpected to some folks, the biggest fear is often the fear of the unknown,” he said. ❚
What does it look like in other provinces?
The Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association is the fourth such body in Canada to adopt a transgender policy. Here is a summary of the policies that are in place in the other three provinces:
Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations
To compete on a girls’ team, transgender females must have been taking hormone treatment therapy for 12 months or have had gender reassignment surgery. Transgender students who are not undergoing gender reassignment are deemed to be their birth gender for the purposes of sport eligibility.
BC School Sports
A student athlete may participate with the opposite sex in a sex-segregated sport according to his or her gender identity.
Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association
Any transgender student athlete may participate in sex-separated sports activities in accordance with his or her gender identity.