Story at a glance
- A Pennsylvania school district this week approved a policy to bar transgender athletes from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
- The policy update comes less than a week after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed legislation that would have prevented transgender athletes across the state from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity.
- School district officials and community members worry the new policy may open the district up to lawsuits, although others have said the measure is necessary to preserve the integrity of women’s sports.
A Pennsylvania school district this week approved a policy to limit how transgender students may participate in athletics, circumventing the governor’s rejection of another measure earlier this week that would have barred transgender athletes across the state from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
In a 6-3 vote, board members of the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, Pa. on Tuesday approved a policy requiring school sports teams to be designated based on athletes’ sex assigned at birth. A previous policy had permitted students to compete on teams that matched their gender identity.
“Separate athletic teams on the basis of sex preserve fairness, provide increased opportunity for girls, and are safer,” reads the updated policy, which went into effect immediately. “As such, the district provides separate interscholastic athletic teams on the basis of sex.”
The policy adds that teams will not be segregated based on “irrelevant classifications” including gender identity.
Schools within the district will provide “reasonable accommodations” for girls to participate on boys’ sports teams when “there is no female team for that sport during the school year,” according to the policy. Similar accommodations will be made available for boys wishing to play on girls’ teams, although a doctor’s note certifying the student has not yet begun male puberty will need to be delivered to the school’s athletic director.
The policy, first introduced in June, had been hotly debated by parents and district officials, with the measure’s supporters arguing that the preservation of fairness in girls’ sports depended on it and the policy’s opponents alleging that it was blatantly discriminatory and sent a dangerous message to transgender youth that they do not belong.
On Tuesday, Hempfield school board member Jim Maurer, who voted against the new policy, wondered aloud whether the measure would make the school district more vulnerable to legal challenges that could jeopardize its federal funding through Title IX, which prevents sex-based discrimination.
“We’re at risk for further lawsuits in the future which would take away dollars that should be available for our students for educational needs,” Maurer said, Lancaster Online reported.
A recent report from the LGBTQ Victory Institute, a partner organization of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, found that LGBTQ+ people account for just 0.1 percent of all school board members in the U.S. School districts with LGBTQ+ board members are more likely to introduce policies that support LGBTQ+ students, including young transgender athletes.
Less than a week before the Hempfield school board meeting, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed legislation that would have barred transgender athletes across the state from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
The measure had sailed through the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, but did not have enough support to override the governor’s veto.
Wolf had earlier this year pledged to veto the bill, titled the Protect Women’s Sports Act, and in a veto message last week called the measure “discriminatory” and alleged it would have violated federal law and constitutional guarantees of equal protection if it had been enacted.
“I have been crystal clear during my time in office that hate has no place in Pennsylvania, especially discrimination against already marginalized youth representing less than half of 1 percent of Pennsylvania’s population,” Wolf said in a statement. “The fact that this bill passed through Pennsylvania’s Republican-led General Assembly solely to bully and oppress vulnerable children is atrocious. These members should be ashamed of themselves for proposing and voting on policies that are discriminatory, unnecessary, and incredibly harmful.”
Including Pennsylvania, nearly 30 states this year have introduced measures that would bar transgender student athletes from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, according to Freedom for All Americans, which tracks such legislation.
Battles to keep transgender people – particularly transgender women and girls – out of competitive athletics have thus far primarily been fought at the state level, although Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to restrict transgender athlete participation nationwide.
Outside of legislative action, state high school athletic associations have adopted policies that have made it increasingly difficult for transgender students to play on sports teams that match their gender identity. Currently, Pennsylvania is one of just three states with no guidance on transgender athlete participation in place.