Policies about transgender students have been in the headlines for months, largely due to the signing and subsequent backlash against California’s AB1266, which significantly advanced protections and freedoms for transgender students throughout the state. Recently, the Virginia State High School League (VHSL), the state’s governing body for high school athletics, announced new rules that they claim allow the inclusion of transgender athletes on teams of their identified gender. They’ve pretty quick to congratulate themselves for being so progressive, and the mainstream press has given them a lot of credit for updating their policies for “inclusiveness”.
Unfortunately, either no one in the VHSL did even the slightest bit of research about trans issues, or the entire rule was designed to give the appearance of inclusiveness without actually making real changes. You see, the rule requires that students have undergone gender confirmation surgery (specifically genital surgery) in order to participate. The rule reads as follows:
Virginia High School League rules and regulations allow transgender student-athlete participation under the following conditions:
A. A student-athlete will compete in the gender of their birth certificate unless they have undergone sex reassignment.
B. A student-athlete who has undergone sex reassignment is eligible to compete in the reassigned gender when:
1. The student-athlete has undergone sex reassignment before puberty, or
2. The student-athlete has undergone sex reassignment after puberty under all of the following conditions:
a. Surgical anatomical changes have been completed, including external genitalia changes and gonadectomy.
b. Hormonal therapy appropriate for the assigned sex has been administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimize gender-related advantages in sports competition.
c. If a student-athlete stops taking hormonal treatment, they will be required to participate in the sport consistent with their birth gender.
C. A student-athlete seeking to participate as a result of sex reassignment must access the VHSL eligibility appeals process.
That’s a pretty huge problem for many reasons. The largest of these is the current Standards of Care of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). The Standards of Care function as the guiding documents for pretty much all health professionals involved in trans medical care, and their guidelines for surgery are very specific (and almost no surgeon is willing to go against them). They read:
Criteria for metoidioplasty or phalloplasty
in FtM patients and for vaginoplasty in MtF
1. Persistent, well-documented gender dys-
2. Capacity to make a fully informed decision
and to consent for treatment;
3. Age of majority in a given country;
4. If significant medical or mental health
concerns are present, they must be well
5. 12 continuous months of hormone therapy
as appropriate to the patient’s gender
goals (unless hormones are not clinically
indicated for the individual).
6. 12 continuous months of living in a gender
role that is congruent with the patient’s
In the US, the age of majority is 18. Last time I checked, there weren’t exactly a ton of 18-year-olds running around high schools- just a few seniors with really early birthdays. That’s not very many students who have even a glimmer of hope of meeting all the criteria of this policy. Given that genital surgery has quite a long recovery period (stretching months after the surgery), I don’t quite see how this policy is going allow pretty much ANY trans students to participate in high school sports in Virginia. If the members of the VHSL had bothered to ask a practitioner specializing in trans health, or to even just read the WPATH Standards of Care, they’d have been aware of this fact.
As a corollary, this policy isn’t even based upon anything approaching actual medical science. Last time I checked, the mere presence of a penis didn’t make you run faster, jump higher, or give one any other advantage in athletics. Hormonal transition, particularly in adolescents, fundamentally alters body phenotype and shuts down sex hormone production in the gonads, meaning there’s no competitive advantage is gained by simply HAVING your birth gonads. The changes in response to hormone are particularly rapid and profound in adolescents, so any arguments about requiring GCS to mitigate “competitive advantage” are pretty much scientifically bunk.
Furthermore, even IF the WPATH criteria didn’t preclude minors from having GCS, it remains an extraordinarily expensive medical procedure that is rarely covered by insurance, and only a minority of trans people will complete it in their lifetime, let alone someone still under the care of their parents. Lastly, this policy is horrifically ignorant just what a major decisions having GCS is for a trans person. Not only is it very invasive and full of risks, but it has a lifetime of physical consequences, and it puts a permanent end to a person’s ability to have biological children. It’s a decision that full-grown adults in their 30s struggle with, and it’s complete unreasonable to expect a teenager to make such a decision simply to play a game.
And really, what we’re talking about is high school sports, a bunch of teenager playing a game…not big-money college athletics or professional/world-class athletes. High school sports are supposed to be primarily about learning team-work, sportsmanship, keeping teenagers physically active, and providing a factor to drive student body unity. (Yes, I’m aware that lots of people take them FAR more seriously than that, but that’s another essay topic entirely). At the end of the day, the stakes are embarrassingly small to be this paranoid about someone having a competitive advantage, or to deny trans students the opportunity to participate in an activity that gives them the opportunity to integrate with cisgender peers.
So, really, what can we conclude? Either the VHSL is woefully ignorant about trans issues and far too lazy to actually research a topic before issuing a rule that affects an already heavily discriminated-against student population, or they were seeking the praise and hoping to appear “progressive” and “forward-thinking” without actually making any changes that would allow trans athletes to participate. In either case, it’s a big disappointment for trans students in Virginia, who deserve much better than this sad, lip-service-at-best policy.