Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK), which is answered locally. Other resources include Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 or translifeline.org
FARGO — Lawmakers in the tri-state region are considering bills that would impact transgender people, and specifically, in North Dakota and Minnesota, young transgender athletes.
However, organizations that govern high school sports said they don’t see the issue come up often enough to warrant a change.
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In addition, transgender youth advocates say any such change would be harmful to a population already vulnerable to depression, anxiety and suicidality.
The North Dakota legislation would bar high school and college athletes from participating in sports under any sex other than the one listed on their birth certificate.
Lead sponsor, Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, insists it has nothing to do with transgender athletes, but rather is about fairness in sports and preventing women from being disadvantaged by having to compete against men.
A committee discussed and set aside the bill, but it could come up at a later date.
Matt Fetsch, executive director of the North Dakota High School Activities Association, describes it as a “non-issue” in the state.
He said the NDHSAA Board of Directors approved a transgender student eligibility regulation in 2015, which mirrored the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s policy at the time.
Under it, a student who transitioned from female to male and has undergone treatment with testosterone may compete in boys sports but is no longer eligible to compete in girls sports.
A student who has transitioned from male to female may continue to compete in boys sports and is eligible to compete in girls sports after completing one year of testosterone suppression.
Fetsch said to date, his office has not worked with any school on eligibility for a transgender student who has completed hormone treatments referenced in the regulation.
Fetsch said he’s not saying there are no transgender athletes in the state, but that they’re likely competing under the gender that’s on their birth certificate, even though they identify as other.
In other words, they have not sought hormone treatments, he said.
Rebel Marie, vice president of Tri-State Transgender, said that could be because there are few physicians in the state who are willing to prescribe hormone therapy.
She said transgender athletes are often discriminated against when seeking that kind of medical care.
Fetsch said there are more transgender students participating in high school activities outside of sports in North Dakota, including music, debate, speech and theatre.
Those activities, once gender specific, such as boys ensemble or girls ensemble, are no longer divided by gender, he said.
The only time his office even hears about a transgender student is when a student has changed their name and it needs to be revised in their data system.
The transgender athlete participation policies in place in Minnesota and South Dakota are different from North Dakota’s.
Both require approval for participation up front, with documentation from family, friends, teachers and a health care professional affirming the student’s consistent gender identification and expression.
Hormone treatment is not mentioned anywhere in the Minnesota or South Dakota policies.
Dan Swartos, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, said under their policy, it must be shown that the change is not being made for a competitive advantage, and that the student is legitimately living their life that way.
Currently, there are no transgender female athletes competing in South Dakota high school sports, he said.
In the history of the policy, which dates back nine years, there has been only one athlete who was born male and transitioned to female, Swartos said.
As for athletes who were born female but are participating as a transgender male, Swartos said that number is in the “low single digits.”
In late January, the bill passed by a relatively slim margin in the Republican-controlled House.
Swartos said that bill would have no impact on transgender student athletes in the state, because the SDHSAA policy doesn’t require proof of a birth certificate.
Girls have competed in wrestling for years in South Dakota, he said, and this school year is the first that they have their own classification of girls wrestling as a sport.
Initially, there were concerns the North Dakota legislation could affect girls who are taking part in sports primarily done by boys; for example, girls who wrestle or girls who kick for their high school football team.
Todd Sheldon, head football coach for Mandan High School, said he understands that wouldn’t be the case, because football is not designated as a gender specific sport.
The legislation, if passed, would be an issue, for example, if a transgender female wanted to compete on a girls hockey team or girls track team.
Transgender youth advocate Faye Seidler of Fargo said any such move by the state would increase depression, anxiety, instances of family rejection, and suicidality in a population that is already struggling.
She said the bill solely and systematically discriminates against transgender youth with no benefit to anyone else.
“It would force parents who care for their trans child to move to better states, that would give them more hope, support, and resources. It would cause any family with a trans child to avoid living or working in this state,” Seidler said.
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