Explainer: VHSL policy on transgender high school athletes

The new policy initially seemed like a step forward. Now it seems to be sidestepping the issue all together.

What happened?

The Virginia High School League (VHSL) oversees the athletics at 313 public high schools across the Commonwealth.

Last week, the VHSL executive committee voted 27-0 to allow the participation of transgender athletes. Up until last week, the VHSL had no explicit policy regarding those athletes.1

So this is good, right?

Sort of.

While there are no known transgender athletes participating in Virginia public high schools (according to the VHSL), the fact that the organization adopted a policy that explicitly allows transgender athletes is a good thing.

“On face value, it’s always a good step to see VHSL addressing an issue like this,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. He said that the VHSL “recognizing that they have transgender students in their school system” is a positive development.

So what’s the problem?

While the new policy explicitly permits transgender athletes to play on the gendered team they identity with, the requirements transgender players must meet are nearly impossible.

According to the policy, a transgender player must have sex reassignment surgery (i.e. “external genitalia changes and gonadectomy”) and must have had hormonal therapy “in a verifiable manner” and for a “sufficient length of time.”

But the Standards of Care outlined by The World Professional Association for Transgender Health states that doctors should avoid performing gentile surgery on minors:

Genital surgery should not be carried out until (i) patients reach the legal age of majority [age 18 in Virginia] to give consent for medical procedures in a given country, and (ii) patients have lived continuously for at least 12 months in the gender role that is congruent with their gender identity. The age threshold should be seen as a minimum criterion and not an indication in and of itself for active intervention.

What does that mean?

It means that because most high school students are under 18–and doctors are reluctant to perform gender surgery on minors–Virginia transgender athletes wouldn’t qualify to play on the team they identify with, under the current VHSL policy.

And even if doctors performed gender surgery on minors, most transgender people don’t undergo gender surgery (PDF).

So is the VHSL effectively trying to ban transgender athletes?

James Parrish of Equality Virginia said he’s neither seen nor heard anything that makes him believe that the VHSL has acted maliciously.

“We applaud them for taking the action to address the need,” Parrish said. But while he the new policy is well-intentioned, it falls short of VHSL’s intended goal.

Parrish said Equality Virginia has reached out to VHSL to “create a policy that’s going to include as many transgender youth as possible.”

But VHSL executive director Ken Tilley told The Washington Post that VHSL deliberately chose the physiological standards outlined in the policy.

“We felt that would fit best with us, and we were most comfortable with that position,” Tilley said.

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  1. There are 18 other states with transgender sports policies, according to the VHSL. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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