Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports — although state legislatures, Congress and the courts are all expected to have their say this year, too.
Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in two key legal battles — one in Connecticut, the other in Idaho — that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Debate is also expected in statehouses. Last year, bills to restrict transgender athletes' participation to their gender assigned at birth were brought up in 17 states, although only one, Idaho's, became law.
During his campaign, Biden committed to restoring transgender students’ access to sports, bathrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.
In Idaho, a law signed in March became the nation's first to prohibit transgender students who identify as female from playing on female teams sponsored by public schools, colleges and universities. The law was supported by President Donald Trump’s administration but blocked from implementation by a federal judge while a legal challenge by ACLU proceeds.
In Connecticut, the Trump administration intervened in support of a lawsuit filed by several non-transgender girls in Connecticut who were seeking to block a state policy that allows transgender athletes to compete in line with their identity. The plaintiffs argued transgender female runners had an unfair physical advantage.
But the two transgender runners at the center of that case said in court filings that being able to run against girls was central to their well-being.
“Running has been so important for my identity, my growth as a person, and my ability to survive in a world that discriminates against me,” Andraya Yearwood wrote to the court. “I am thankful that I live in Connecticut where I can be treated as a girl in all aspects of life and not face discrimination at school.”
Opponents say Title IX protects cisgender girls and allowing trans girls to participate against them is a violation of the statute.
“I think that is extremely concerning for the future of women’s sports and would reverse nearly 50 years of gains for women under Title IX,” said Christiana Holcomb, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom.
In states that have adopted policies on transgender participation high school sports, approaches have varied.
Currently, 14 states and the District of Columbia have policies similar to Connecticut’s, according to Transathlete.com. Fourteen others allow transgender participation with certain conditions, such as hormone treatments or other proof the athlete is transitioning, according to the organization.
“It’s possible that the Connecticut case could evaporate under a new administration that doesn’t want to press it,” said Erin Buzuvis, a professor at the Western New England School of Law who specializes in gender and discrimination in education and athletics.