Katelyn McKay, a junior at South Portland High School, has a male friend at a neighboring school who doesn’t like to take gym class and, in fact, tries to avoid it.

“He’s a transgender,” she said, “and he gets picked on all the time in the boys’ locker room because he dresses like a girl.

“It would be nice,” she said, “if he had his own place to go to, so he doesn’t get picked on by the boys and he doesn’t feel awkward in the girls’ locker room.”

The Maine Human Rights Commission is proposing guidelines, based on the 2005 Maine Human Rights Act, for the state’s schools to follow for transgender students. The guidelines would allow those students to choose restrooms, locker rooms and sports teams designated for the gender with which they identify, not their biological gender.

A month ago, the commission asked for more public comment on the guidelines. A public forum probably will be held in May.

The Maine Principals’ Association will follow it closely. MPA officials are concerned that the guidelines could affect Maine’s interscholastic sports teams, on the field and off.

“As an association, as individual schools and as individuals, we want to meet the needs of every student in our buildings,” said Dick Durost, the MPA’s executive director. “But at the same time, we have to do it with a look toward safety, a level playing field and the comfort level in the locker room and bathroom situation of the gender that the locker room or bathroom is assigned.”

A big issue could be on the playing field, where MPA officials are concerned that a male-to-female transgender student could dominate a female sport.

“We recognize that the biological males and females come in different shapes and sizes,” Durost said. “But by their junior and senior year, the biological male is typically stronger and faster than the biological female.

“We have that concern, and also the impact it would have on the level playing field, both on the team that the biological male would play on and the level of competition of his opponents. If the person is athletically gifted, there are a couple of sports he could dominate,” Durost said.

Biological differences will likely be a topic of discussion at the MPA’s Mentoring Women in Sports XII conference today in Augusta. The keynote speaker will be Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association and a nationally known speaker on the effect of gender on competitive behavior.

In a phone interview, DeBoer noted that she is not a transgender expert. “What I do know,” she said, “is that there are some biological and social impacts on how, generally, males and females respond in competitive situations. What will be debated with the transgender athlete is how much of it is biological and how much of it is social.”

Those issues aren’t at the heart of the human rights commission’s guidelines. But discrimination is.

“The issue, from our perspective, is that (the Maine Human Rights Act) says that schools cannot discriminate or exclude kids from their programs,” said John Gause, counsel for the commission. “Exclusion includes segregation if the student can only participate in sports consistent with their biological sex. In that case, they won’t participate.”

The commission seldom seeks public comments on its guidelines, but “there has been a lot of public interest” in the issue, Gause said.

Durost welcomes the public forum. “The human rights commission is in front of the rest of the country in terms of looking at this issue,” he said.

Washington and Colorado are the only states with transgender policies. The policies were adopted within the last three years by each state’s athletic rules-making organization.

“It’s called gender identity participation,” said Tim Graham, athletic director at Tumwater (Wash.) High, a school of 1,000 students two miles south of Olympia. “We had a case come up where a gender identity person decided to participate in athletic competition. We had to make a ruling at that time, so we asked the (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association) to look around to see what other cases could be found. We found that nobody had a transgender policy.”

Working with the local American Civil Liberties Union and social organizations, the association devised a transgender policy in 2007. Graham said about 10 transgender students have been identified in three years.

The Colorado High School Activities Association also discovered a lack of transgender policies. It originally modeled its policy after those of the Olympic movement and the NCAA, but found that they really didn’t fit Colorado students.

“So we talked to the Washington association and our transgender community and created a sketch of a policy that would be more open to allowing high school students with transgender issues to compete in high school sports,” said Rhonda Blanford-Green, an assistant commissioner for the Colorado association.

The policy passed in April 2009. The state now has one male-to-female transgender student competing, in cross country, said Blanford-Green.

The association’s representatives spent a lot of time traveling around Colorado to educate members on the policy. They found little public opposition.

“They trusted us that we had done our homework,” Blanford-Green said.

In Washington, Graham said transgender policies are absolutely needed.

“Cases are going to come up and you don’t want to not have anything in place,” he said. “It’s not going to be a detriment to what the school programs are doing. It’s what’s happening and you need to have something in place to deal with it.

“You want to have a fundamental fairness to the kids in your program who want to participate,” he said.

In South Portland, McKay said a policy would be important to Maine.

“You can’t force people to accept something,” she said. “I just wish there was a little more understanding.”

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]