For transgender athletes, policy, culture are high hurdles to clear

By Noah Barkan

Lower Merion High

High school isn’t easy for anyone. From balancing schoolwork, sports and extracurriculars to navigating social circles to facing real world issues, school students have their plate full.

But when some students must face bias, stereotypes and stigmas for merely trying to play a sport they love, things get even more complicated.

The 12th-grade transgender athlete, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy, is soon to begin testosterone treatment, which will bar him from playing on the women’s team. A past concussion means he won’t be eligible to play on the men’s team, either.

“Having the ability to play on the team is certainly saddening to me because this is likely going to be my last year of competitive ice hockey,” Finn said.

Finn skating with the Junior Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center in January of 2021. Despite Finn’s love for the sport, he will no longer be able to play ice hockey competitively once he starts hormone therapy.

Many transgender high school athletes face these very struggles. For a lot of them, the experience of getting on the team they’ve dreamed of, or scoring their first goal looks very different from other athletes. 

Two transgender high school students talked about the two main factors that impact the transgender athletes experience in sports: policy and culture. 

Policies are deeply intertwined with hormone therapy. Different high schools, leagues and areas have different rules relating to transgender participation and hormone therapy.

After a review of Lower Merion School District’s policies relating to transgender participation — policies that have been known to be mirrored across their twelve-school sports league — it’s clear that very little concrete rules are applied.

A transgender flag waves on Lower Merion’s football field. Many debate whether high school sports teams are truly safe and inclusive for transgender students. (Noah Barkan)

Lower Merion School District’s rules reference the the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association IAA handbook — a set of guidelines many high schools in Pennsylvania use.

In general, both the PIAA rules and Lower Merion’s specific rules can be boiled down to higher level administrators and their decision on a student’s ability to participate in a given sport. Often stigmas and rules concerning hormone replacement therapy(HRT) are treated as a necessity for male to female (MTF) but a detriment to female to male (FTM) transitions.

But the experience of high school transgender athletes doesn’t just relate to policies and hormone therapy. What seems to be equally, if not more influential, is the team’s culture. 

Finn participated on the Olympic track for figure skating prior to his transition. Looking back on his time in the sport, he believes he “would never be able to be in the Olympics as someone who is transgender.”

But this decision wasn’t made on rules but rather on the culture of figure skating. He said there is much judgment when it comes to figure skaters’ appearance both on and off of the ice. According to Finn, this judgmental environment has huge impact on transgender skaters. 

Sam, a transgender high school student who also wished to keep his last name private, chose not to play sports this season. He also notes the importance of team culture on athletes even at a less competitive level.

​​”The reason I don’t play sports is because I don’t want to be on a girls’ sports team, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing on a boys’ sports team, Sam said.

Sam brings up hardships harsh cultures and environments pose for transgender students. For students such as Sam, they even act as a deterrent for those who don’t feel like they would be respected on a team that represents their gender. 

A transgender flag on the lacrosse goal at Lower Merion’s football field. Many believe sports cultures pose a big problem for transgender athletes. (Noah Barkan)

Transgender students interviewed for this story say overt transphobia is also a huge issue. Especially apparent on male sports teams, transphobia can reportedly run rampant and untreated.

This is especially prevalent when team leadership, such as coaches and captains, are seen as uneducated and complacent. Everything from misgendering to ostracization is common on high school sports teams, the transgender athletes said.

When it comes to team sports such as ice hockey, trust, respect and comfortability are essential, they said. Transphobic mind-sets actively hinder all of those values, they said, adding that they believe sport culture leads to some of those hateful ideologies. 

Though each from varying circumstances, both students said that substantial change needs to be made either to the system and culture of high school sports. Circumstances surrounding hormone policies and team environments can make transgender athletes uncomfortable or not wish to participate at all, they said. 

“The experience of every athlete is important and should be treated as such,” Finn says.

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