"I was really worried about coming out as transgender to anyone else because I knew there weren’t any policies. I was so afraid that my school would ban me from my sport and that was the only thing I had at the time. I finally decided to come out my senior year of college because I was going down a slippery slope and I didn't think I could pull myself out if I didn't come out."
--A transgender former college athlete
Many transgender athletes relate similar experiences that make their participation on college teams painful and frustrating: An athlete is called "she/he" and "it" by opposing players during a game. An athlete stops playing sports in college because it becomes too uncomfortable to use the locker room. An athlete has to change clothes in a utility closet separate from the rest of the team. An athlete quits the team because it becomes too painful to keep reminding coaches and teammates about the athlete's preferred pronouns. None of the institutions or athletic conferences in which these athletes compete have a policy governing the inclusion of transgender student-athletes on sports teams.
These descriptions and many others like them characterize the experiences of many young people who identify as transgender and want to play on their colleges' athletic teams. Transgender is a broad term used to describe the experiences of people whose gender identity and expression do not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people transition to live as their preferred gender by changing their names and the pronouns they use to refer to themselves. They express their preferred gender through choice of clothes, hairstyles and other manifestations of gender expression and identity. Some transgender people undergo reconstructive surgery or take hormones to make their bodies more congruent with their internal sense of themselves. Others do not.
Since the increased visibility of a transgender rights movement in the 1980s and a school-based LGBT "safe schools" movement in the 1990s, more young people have the language and information they need to identify the gender dissonance they experience between the sex they were assigned at birth and the gender identity that they know to be true for them. They are increasingly identifying themselves as transgender and they are doing it at earlier ages. In addition, parents are much more likely to support their transgender children and advocate for them in schools. As more states add "gender identity and expression" to non-discrimination legislation and as these legal protections are applied to schools, transgender students and their parents have increased leverage to ensure that educational institutions address their needs. K-12 school and college educators find themselves playing catch up as they learn to accommodate the educational needs of trans-identified students and protect them from bullying and harassment in school or at college.
Many of these young people want to play on their schools' or colleges' sports teams. As a result, athletic directors and coaches increasingly find themselves unprepared to make decisions about what team a transgender student is eligible to play for. As the number of transgender students who want to play on school sports teams increases, school athletic leaders must identify effective and fair policies to ensure their right to participate. Though the issue of accommodating the needs of transgender students, staff and faculty in higher education has received attention, it has not been adequately addressed in athletics. Many colleges have changed policies on access to bathrooms, residence halls or face controversy because they have not done so. In athletics, conversations about accommodating transgender students have only recently begun.
For the most part, athletic teams at high schools and colleges are segregated by sex and divided into men’s and women’s teams. For transgender students, determining on which gender’s team, if any, they will be allowed to play can be a difficult process fraught with misconceptions, ignorance and discrimination. Few high school or collegiate athletic programs, administrators or coaches are prepared to address a transgender student’s interest in participating in athletics in a systematic, fair and effective manner. Few athletes have been given the information that would prepare them to participate on a team with a teammate whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
The vast majority of school athletic programs have no policy governing the inclusion of transgender athletes and athletic staff have no idea how to accommodate a transgender student who wants to play on a college sports team. Even basic accommodations can be confusing, such as what pronouns or name to use to refer to that student, where that student should change clothes for practice or competition, what bathroom that student should use, or how to apply team dress codes.
Washington is the only state that has a policy identifying the process for enabling transgender students to participate in high school athletics. The National Collegiate Athletic Association does not prohibit transgender students from participating in NCAA sponsored events, but recommends that NCAA member institutions use a student’s official identity documents (birth certificate, driver’s license or passport) to determine whether a student-athlete is eligible to compete on the men’s or women’s team. Because of wide variations in state requirements for changing identity documents, however, the NCAA recommendation unintentionally creates an inequitable situation depending on where the student is enrolled.
Applying the 2004 International Olympic Committee policy governing the participation of transsexual athletes in IOC sanctioned events to collegiate athletics is problematic for a number of reasons. The IOC policy, though pioneering, is criticized by knowledgeable medical experts and transgender advocates for requiring genital reconstructive surgery as a criterion for eligibility. Moreover, applying the IOC policy to collegiate sports does not take into account the eligibility limits placed on individual athletes or the age and developmental needs of this age group.
After a number of informal discussions with collegiate athletic leaders and transgender students who want to participate in sports, the National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project and the Women’s Sports Foundation initiative, It Takes A Team! joined forces to organize a national meeting on these topics in the fall. Two of the guiding principles for the discussion were 1) Participation in interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics is a valuable part of the education experience for all students and 2) Transgender student-athletes should have equal opportunity to participate in sports.
The 40 participants, including representatives from the NCAA and Interscholastic High School Athletic Association leaders, were an impressive group of experts from a range of disciplines — law, medicine, sports, advocacy, and athletics — all of whom share an interest in transgender issues. The goals were to identify best practices and develop model policies for high school and collegiate athletic leaders to ensure the full inclusion of transgender student-athletes. A report will be issued in 2010 outlining specific recommendations for high school and collegiate athletic programs.
Specific issues discussed included:
From a medical perspective, what are the salient factors that should be used to determine for which team (women’s or men’s) a transgender student is eligible to participate?
From a policy and school regulation perspective, how can we develop policies governing the participation of transgender students in athletics that adhere to state and federal laws protecting students from discrimination based on gender identity and expression?
From an athletic perspective, how can we address concerns about "competitive equity" or "unfair advantage" while acknowledging the broad diversity of performance already exhibited within both women’s and men’s sports?
From an education perspective, how can we ensure that athletic administrators, staff, parents of athletes and student-athletes have access to sound and effective education related to the participation of transgender students in athletics?
In our forthcoming report, we provide recommendations to address each of these questions.
The most powerful information came from the transgender student-athletes in attendance, who detailed their challenges and triumphs and the importance of high school and collegiate sport participation. Their stories reinforced the necessity of developing sound policies and practices that enable transgender student-athletes to play the sports they love in an environment where their gender identity and expression are accepted as one more aspect of the diversity typical of school and college sports teams.
Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll
Pat Griffin is director of It Takes A Team. Helen Carroll is director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project.
Sometime in March, an e-mail went viral among University of Southern California undergraduates. The e-mail outlined a series of guidelines for tallying and scoring sexual conquests. While engaged in the expected language of misogyny, the e-mail was also rampant with racism, suggestions to incapacitate "targets" with alcohol, and most disturbingly of all, an assertion that "Non-consent and rape are two different things." As one of a string of Internet-related sex(ism) scandals that have emerged at major universities around the world, this e-mail proved a catalyst for considering the ways that such overtly troubling language reverberates in the university and how a university community can best balance a commitment to free speech against the need to curtail hate speech and sexual violence.
I am an assistant lecturer in the Writing Program at USC as well as a student in the English Ph.D. program, and so I felt doubly frustrated with the proliferation of such language, both on behalf of my students, and perhaps selfishly, for myself. The class I am currently teaching is affiliated with a course in Studies of Women and Men in Society (SWMS), so it was pertinent to the work we'd been doing, particularly as we had been having an extended conversation about the power and effectiveness of parody. We had been interested in the critical distance between an argument as it is literally presented and as it is meant to be understood as required for ironic understanding. If this e-mail, so clearly engaged with the language of hate, was written as a parody of the cartoonishly predatory college male, at what point can the content of it be considered dangerous, particularly considering the non-consent/rape passage? Couldn’t seeing the e-mail as hate speech displace the original purpose? How much does it matter what the author’s intention was, I asked, if a reader sees it as hate speech?
These questions seemed particularly pertinent considering the fact that the Daily Trojan’s report on the e-mail included nearly a dozen comments pointing out that it had been written as a joke and that those reacting negatively were taking it far too seriously. Perhaps much of the fixation on this point of the alleged humor was due to possible connections between the e-mail and the university’s powerful and popular Greek system. The email was initially attributed to Kappa Sigma fraternity members, but Intrafraternity Council investigations have now attributed authorship to a non-fraternity member who, in turn, has identified the origin of the email as from another university entirely. Elsewhere, students claiming to have been witness to the early drafting stages of the email attribute it to a named USC student. Despite it being the primary focus of much of the response to the e-mail, the authorship and origin of the email are ultimately of little consequence.
Instead of attributing blame for the e-mail to a particular fraternity or student, we should be talking about the power and influence of such rhetoric as it reverberates within a campus and in the greater public consciousness that defines a university’s reputation. This is a conversation we’ve had before and it’s one we will have again, but in making the conversation more public and more explicit in its goals, we at least allow it to develop. Indeed, troubling scandals pop up fairly consistently in national and international media, aided by the proliferating influence of the Internet.
A very similar series of e-mails circulated through University of Oxford’s Penguin Club, an all-male drinking club, in Spring 2010, though in this case, specific female students from Hertford College were named, ranked, and again referred to as "targets." All 15 members of the Penguin Club were suspended, though the administration did not acknowledge a connection between the suspension and the emails.
In my class discussion regarding the USC e-mail, students’ reactions were varied, though almost consistently negative. Some were colorful ("It made me vomit in my mouth"); some had been sent the e-mail a full week before I had; and some were hearing of it for the first time and clustered around their laptops to read snippets of it to each other. The conversation was lively, and students who are normally quiet chimed in, including one who noted that she was not upset at all by the e-mail because she already knew this was exactly how college students talked all the time. While it is not entirely surprising to encounter an apathetic college freshman, the fact that her apathy stemmed from desensitization to racist, misogynistic, and, most disturbingly, rape-apologetic rhetoric was disheartening.
This apathy, more than the content of the e-mail, is indicative of a larger systemic problem. Universities are not unique in their isolation, and such language certainly proliferates in other communities, but never has it been more essential to have an open dialogue about the stakes of such rhetoric. The aftermath of such publicly sexist and racist language needs to include forums more open than an Internet comment board for conversation. Panel discussions with representatives from student groups, administration, and faculty would allow a space for conversation and would celebrate the intelligence and responsibility of the students implicated by association with those perpetuating such rhetoric. When a university administration fails to respond openly and promptly to a now-public comment invalidating consent as a defining difference between consensual sex and rape, even one that was written for a private audience, it becomes complicit in a culture that refuses to examine the complexities of rape and consent and, as a result, perpetuates silence and fear. The university policies and procedures, as well as local laws and avenues for reporting and responding to sexual assault, should be reiterated publicly and frequently, not just as instigated by such an event.
Of course the weight of response cannot be expected exclusively from the administration. Not only do students need to be actively responsible for a greater community of respect and communication, but also to recognize that such language of disrespect is not limited to these well-publicized moment -- and that when they are put to public scrutiny, they reflect as much on those who are completely uninvolved as on those who directly formulated the rhetoric, as well as reflecting on the educational environment of the university. By examining the responses I’ve witnessed, I do not mean to suggest that a university is responsible for policing its students’ language or holds the exclusive responsibility for responding, but that ignoring the opportunity to perform outreach at such moments is a disservice to its students, particularly when the size of the community discourages them from organizing independently.
Samantha Carrick is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of English at the University of Southern California.
In a highly unusual move, the presidents of three leading universities issued a statement Thursday to challenge the views of Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, on women and science.
Summers has apologized for his statements, in which he suggested that "innate differences" between men and women may be a reason why there are so few women in science.