By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 9 a.m. Saturday
LINCOLN – With no fanfare or media releases, the Nebraska School Activities Association passed a policy in December that protects transgender students’ right to participate in school activities, including sports.
And with that, Nebraska became one of just eight states with such a policy – although Nebraska is a bit of an outlier, joining blue states such as California, Oregon and several on the East Coast. The policy prompted Deadspin to recently name Nebraska “one of the best states to be a transgender high school athlete.”
The new policy was proposed by the NSAA’s new executive director, Rhonda Blanford-Green, who was an 11-time All-American sprinter and hurdler at the University of Nebraska in the early 1980s. Blanford-Green left Colorado’s High School Activities Association, where she helped craft a similar policy in 2009, to take the top job in Nebraska about a year ago.
How did she get the policy passed, unanimously, by her board in a conservative state that’s not known for being friendly to the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community?
“We’re not trying to adopt a policy that allows same-sex marriage,” she said. “Or that every boy that thinks he’s a girl gets to participate.”
The policy simply adds sexual orientation to the NSAA’s equity code.
“I don’t see it as being controversial at all,” she said. “I see it as being very proactive.”
But not many Nebraskans seem to be aware of the new policy that has attracted the attention of the New York Times.
David Bydalek, executive director of Family First Nebraska, said the NSAA needs to be careful in terms of the competitive balance between males and females. Family First is a conservative, pro-family nonprofit.
“From a physiological standpoint, there are differences,” he said. “We have different competition standards for different sexes and if you’re going to skew that in some way, they have to have thought that out pretty well.”
Some student-athletes might have a problem competing against a transgender opponent. He knows of high school wrestlers who feel uncomfortable wrestling girls because they don’t think it’s proper.
“That might be problematic,” Bydalek said.
Blanford-Green said it’s no different from saying the NSAA won’t discriminate against a student based on their race or disability.
“It’s no different than if I have a special-needs student who has a tube in stomach who wants to run cross country,” Blanford-Green said.
She said it is a proactive move so the NSAA is prepared if and when a transgender student wants to participate in an activity.
“I don’t think it was meant to have some big announcement,” she said. “It’s not controversial. I think the controversy will come when you have a 6-foot-4-inch male that wants to play volleyball.”
Or when a transgender student replaces another student on a team.
“That’s when you’ll see media releases,” she said.
The NSAA bylaws state that the organization recognizes transgender students’ right to participate in interscholastic activities without unlawful discrimination based on their sexual orientation. To ensure “appropriate gender assignment” for sports, the student’s home school would perform a “confidential evaluation to determine the gender assignment for the prospective student-athlete,” according to the policy.
Among the criteria schools would use to determine whether a transgender student is eligible to participate in NSAA activities are:
- A written statement from the student affirming “the consistent gender identity and expression to which the student self-relates”
- Documentation from parents, friends or teachers that the “actions, attitudes, dress and manner demonstrate the student’s consistent gender identification and expression.”
- Written verification from a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist of the student’s gender identification.
- Medical documentation of hormonal therapy, sexual reassignment surgery, counseling, etc.
Once the school makes a decision, the school administrator notifies the NSAA, which would only get involved if the school denies the student from participating and the parents or guardians appeal the decision or another NSAA member school appeals the decision.
“NSAA doesn’t get involved until there’s controversy with the decision of the member school,” Blanford-Green said.
The NSAA would conduct a confidential review, with an appeal hearing within seven days by a three-person board, one of whom must be a physician or mental-health professional. The policy says the board can include a physician with experience in gender identity health care, or a psychiatrist familiar with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health standards of care, a school administrator, an NSAA staffer and an advocate familiar with gender identity and expression issues.
The NSAA policy recommends schools have a plan in place, educate staffers on transgender sensitivity, use correct names and pronouns according to students’ self identification, ensure “gender appropriate restroom accessibility” and reasonably accommodate “equitable locker room accessibility” and allow students to dress according to their gender identity.
Would the policy require a school district to build a new locker room, for example? Blanford-Green said most sports don’t require locker rooms, but “in certain sports you’d have to look at how you’d create an equitable situation.”
Blanford-Green said she has gotten no feedback on the policy, which can be found in NSAA minutes and is available on the NSAA website. She later told another reporter the policy is not in the minutes, and so it will come back for another vote on July 11 to put it in official meeting records.
No Nebraska students have indicated an interest in making use of the policy yet, but if and when they do, the NSAA will be ready.
“We don’t fly by the seat of our pants,” she said. “We won’t make arbitrary decisions. We have a template that tells us how to treat this person with respect and dignity.”
In Colorado, a trangender female wanted to run in cross country, prompting the activities association to pass a policy after she was allowed to participate. Despite having such a policy, a Colorado school district is being sued by the parents of a 6-year-old transgender girl for trying to make her use a separate bathroom.
Blanford-Green said most people just don’t want to talk about the issue. But she’s accustomed to breaking down barriers, as the first black woman to head up a state high school activities association and the first black administrator hired by the Colorado activities association. She also helped convince Gov. Dave Heineman to proclaim a day to celebrate the progression of women in athletics on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
She said it doesn’t matter “whether or not we agree with the concept of transgender.” What’s relevant, she said, is that the NSAA has a policy rather than make decisions based on emotions, ethics or religious beliefs.
Bydalek said the NSAA needs to tread carefully when dealing with “hurting, confused” teenagers.
“If a teenage kid is dealing with sexuality issues, it’s a difficult thing,” Bydalek said. “It’s not an easy subject. You want to have compassion, yet you want to have a policy that makes some sort of common sense.”
Blanford-Green said she is proud of Nebraska’s designation as one of the top places for transgender students to live because it shows the rest of the nation that while Nebraska might be conservative, it’s showing “responsibility and huge progressiveness.”
“Obviously, Nebraska broke some barriers by hiring the first black female to lead an association ever in the nation,” she said.
And while Deadspin expressed shock that Nebraska banned gay marriage 13 years ago but has a transgender-friendly policy, Blanford-Green said she doesn’t see the connection.
“I don’t care about gay marriage,” she said, later clarifying that she has no opinion because it isn’t relevant to her job. “That’s for the politicians.”
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