SOLDOTNA — The Alaska Board of Education on Thursday advanced to public comment proposed regulations that would bar transgender girls from participating in girls’ high school sports.
The proposed regulations, put forward by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and amended by the board during its quarterly meeting in Soldotna, state that “if a separate high school athletics team is established for female students, participation shall be limited to females who were assigned female at birth.”
The public will have several weeks to submit written comments to the board before its next meeting July 26. The state education board has already signaled its support for a regulation change that would limit the participation of transgender kids in school sports, when it passed a resolution in March asking the department to adopt such a change.
Members of the board said Thursday that though they advanced the policy to public comment, their ability to sign off on it would be dependent on a final approval from the Alaska Department of Law. They indicated that while they supported the policy, it could come in conflict with federal efforts to ban discrimination against transgender children.
During their July 26 meeting, board members are set to review public input and decide whether to formally adopt the policy change. If they do, it could go into effect in time for the fall sports season.
Numerous Republican-controlled states have already adopted such changes in recent years. Legislative efforts in Alaska to limit transgender kids from participating in school sports according to the gender with which they identify have failed to advance during the past three sessions.
During the board meeting Thursday, several members of the Soldotna High School girls wrestling team testified in favor of the proposed regulation change.
“My seventh grade year, I did wrestling. For girls, the brackets were mixed. I got fourth place to three other boys,” said Valarie McAnelly, a rising freshman. “This year has been the first year with girls-only brackets. I got first place. Before the brackets were changed, girls didn’t get the opportunity to compete against only girls. By not protecting girls’ sports, all girl athletes will lose that opportunity.”
About two dozen people showed up to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly building shortly before the meeting began Thursday, holding signs that read “Protect girls’ sports.” The rally was organized by the Alaska Family Council, a conservative Christian organization that in recent years has favored several measures targeting the rights of transgender people.
Supporters of the policy change also include the two co-chairs of the state House Education Committee, Republican Reps. Jamie Allard of Eagle River and Justin Ruffridge of Soldotna.
“Women have, I think, fought very diligently to even be recognized as an athletic department, so I think it is important to protect that,” said Ruffridge, who attended the board meeting Thursday.
Allard wrote in a letter to the board that “innocent children desperately need our protection from a world that is trying to sexualize them at a young age.”
“They are being indoctrinated and used like pawns in a politically charged cultural war and it’s hurting all of them. I believe any adult allowing children to go through transition should be charged with child abuse,” wrote Allard.
Meanwhile, opponents of the policy change include the Senate Education Committee chair, Sen. Löki Tobin; the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska; Alaska’s largest educators union; the Anchorage School Board president; and the Association of Alaska School Boards.
“As a former high school wrestler who regularly competed against males, I am dismayed at the politicization of interscholastic activities in this way,” wrote Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat, in a letter to the board. “Why are you so willing to ignore our state’s robust legislative process in this matter?”
Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, the largest teachers union in the state, said that the proposed regulation change “peddles in fear” and would constitute “unprecedented expansion of new regulatory authority, interference with local control, and usurpation of the normal legislative process.”
Lon Garrison, who directs the Association of Alaska School Boards, wrote that the state education board’s actions in circumventing the Legislature, which has not yet acted on bills to achieve the same goal, “smacks of authoritarianism, not democracy.”
Margo Bellamy, president of the Anchorage School Board, wrote that the proposed regulation would cause “an undercurrent of discrimination, hate and fear.”
The lone dissenting voice on the board was Felix Myers, a 17-year-old rising senior from Sitka who begins his tenure as the yearlong student representative on the board next month.
“We have not seen this be an issue in Alaska,” Myers said. “And there’s a reason for that. If you have talked to trans students, if you know these kids, they are in fear of competing in athletics, because of the vitriol, because of the harassment, because of what they face if they are put into that situation. And everyone knows — they face it from adults, they face it from their peers, they face it from their competitors.”
Myers told fellow board members it was “an embarrassment” for an unelected board to take action on a politically divisive issue, rather than leaving it to the Legislature.
“This is just delegitimizing what incredible work this board is capable of doing,” said Myers. “For us to delegitimize all of that work by focusing on a tiny culture war issue that is not a real issue, but does in fact hurt and delegitimize what the students of this state are going through being trans in a country that does not love them — is below us.”
Board Chair James Fields called Myers’ remarks “rather judgmental.”
“To say that we live in a society that does not love transgender people is a stretch, and I would say that some of what you say isn’t true,” said Fields, adding that his support for the policy stemmed in part from his experience raising his daughters and coaching sports teams, where he witnessed how much stronger boys are compared to girls.
Myers said he plans to continue to oppose the policy, and said his position likely reflects that of many other students in the state.
“There are people that care about this and they care about making sure that the student has a voice — and that voice isn’t going away,” he said.