Regulations protect transgender athletes in intramural sports

Jori Epstein

Xiaomin Xue always felt like something was off. He grew up in an Asian, Christian household in Houston after moving from China at the age of eight. He played and managed sports teams through high school, matriculated to this University and was close with his family. Still, something wasn’t right.

It wasn’t until the physical culture and sports senior came to the 40 acres – still identifying as female – that he learned about the transgender and LGBT community.

“That’s when it all clicked,” Xue said.

Although awareness is growing tremendously, transgender individuals – those who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth – still compose a small minority in the country and face huge adversity. The community represented just three-tenths of one-percent of the population in 2011. Even in 2013, only nine percent of Americans knew of close relatives or friends who identified as transgender. As society learns more about the evolving gender spectrum, questions are sure to arise.

Athletics generate many of these questions. In a realm where hormones influence ability and outcome, athletics departments aim to promote inclusivity while maintaining a competitive balance between athletes with different hormonal makeups.

For athletes like Xue, sports were a source of stability as he transitioned genders. Participating in UT’s intramural program as an athlete, referee and supervisor, Xue found solace at RecSports. His reconstruction surgery and testosterone treatments were stressful, but intramural events offered relief.

Darci Doll, who runs UT’s intramural program, understands this need and allows athletes to participate as whichever gender they identify.

“We want all students to feel comfortable participating,” Doll said. “If playing sports makes a student happy, we will do everything in our power to make it happen.”

Doll, like many others at athletic institutions, welcomes transgender students. In fact, even though the sporting world may be one of the hardest places to institute transgender policy, athletics officials around the country have become a model for accommodation.

Policies from legislators, high school-level administrators and intramural and NCAA governing bodies reflect thorough research, an understanding of complex issues and concerted attempts to integrate transgender athletes.

They also realize the importance of having a template for decisions to avoid discomfort each time a case arises. When Oklahoma’s athletic eligibility policy for secondary schools takes effect Wednesday, it will mark the 36th state to adopt a policy for transgender athletes. (Texas is one of the 14 that has not.)

Based off scientific research, Oklahoma’s policy seeks to uphold two principles: competitive balance and consistency. The former requires those transitioning from male to female to take hormones for a year before participating as female; the latter rules that those transitioning from female to male may participate as male without wait – but, once an athlete chooses to play as male, he can’t flip back. The policy received unanimous 12-0 approval from the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association’s board of directors.

“Mostly, we want to be sure that there aren’t limitations imposed on any students that are unnecessary,” said Amy Cassell, the association’s assistant director. “What we were looking to do is provide some guidelines [for schools] to determine what gender the student-athlete should participate with.”

Policies at the collegiate level follow similar rulings. The national intramural association is more lenient, as it released an equity, diversion and inclusion statement to promote transgender student participation. The NCAA's office of inclusion released a detailed guide following similar principles to the Oklahoma ruling, explaining the nuances of gender, scientific considerations and recommended measures for smoothly integrating transgender athletes onto teams. The guide also emphasizes the importance of re-evaluating policies to reflect updated research.

With the NCAA’s guidelines, the first D-I transgender swimmer, Schuyler Bailar, transferred from Harvard’s female swim team to its male one.

“We all noticed – coaches, captains, team members – that when Schuyler was [identifying as] male, he was very happy,” said Stephanie Morawski, the Harvard women’s swimming team coach, who recommended Bailar try the men’s team after recruiting him for her own team. “Why should gender play a role? Schuyler is a great person. Schulyer wanted to swim and was already accepted to Harvard. Why wouldn’t you want to help?”

The policies set forth by these institutions teach a valuable lesson. If the athletic sphere – where hormonal and biological characteristic are legitimately relevant – can integrate transgender individuals smoothly, then other, non-physical spheres of society should have no problem. No two people are identical, be it a distinction of race, religion, socioeconomic status or something else. A person’s gender, whether that which they were assigned at birth or to which they transitioned, is just another descriptor. As Xue says: “Identifying as transgender isn’t a choice.”

Attending college often exposes students to a range of new ideas, beliefs and people. During these formative years, self-exploration isn’t always easy. Transgender students sometimes face an extra hurdle. Xue said the community he grew up in doesn’t acknowledge the LGBT movement.

“It’s all about how other people perceive you so my parents wonder how people will think of them for having an LGBT child,” Xue said. “It’s terrible for them, like they’ve failed if [I’m] anything but Christian and straight.”

As awareness and acceptance of the diverse gender spectrum continues to rise, society will likely only trend toward more inclusivity, understanding and freedom from judgment. In the meantime, athletes like Xue and Bailar will take to the courts, fields and pools.

Thanks to athlete governing bodies, no one will stop them.

Epstein is a Plan II and journalism senior from Dallas. Follow Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.