JUNEAU — Alaska’s high school sports association is set to consider an amendment to its bylaws that would limit transgender girls’ participation in girls’ school sports teams.
The proposed policy, to be considered in May by the Alaska School Activities Association, is modeled after a non-binding resolution approved by the governor-appointed State Board of Education last month with no public input.
The policy would create two sports divisions in Alaska: one exclusively for students whose sex assigned at birth is female, and another that would be open to all students of all genders. The activities association’s board is taking public comment on the policy and is scheduled to discuss whether to approve it at its May meeting in Valdez.
The topic of how transgender athletes should participate in school sports has been hotly debated across the U.S., and efforts to ban transgender athletes from participating in school sports according to their chosen gender have spread in Republican-controlled states in recent years. There are 21 states that have signed such bans into law. An effort to pass a law to limit transgender athletes’ school sports participation failed last year in the Alaska Legislature.
While legislative efforts have stalled, an ASAA policy could affect all high school athletes in Alaska.
Billy Strickland, executive director of ASAA, said the board’s May meeting would be the last opportunity to establish a new league before the start of the next school year in August. The board next meets in October, and the association doesn’t like to make significant changes to how sports are governed in the middle of the school year, he said.
The sports association’s board adopted its existing bylaws for transgender athletes in 2016, which allow each school board and district to adopt their own policies. Most districts don’t have a policy in place, and only the Mat-Su school board has adopted rules limiting the participation of transgender athletes in teams that align with their gender identity. The Anchorage School District policy explicitly allows transgender athletes to participate in intramural sports “in a manner consistent with their gender identity consistently expressed at school.”
The proposed amendment to the association’s bylaws was sent to school administrators in mid-March. Strickland said he has received a handful of public comments since then, which he said have fallen roughly into three equal camps: Those that approved of the new policy, those that don’t, and those that opposed the process used to bring the proposal forward.
The association’s draft policy said that it would meet a request made unanimously by the Alaska board of education last month, which urged the state to enact a policy to protect “the integrity of high school girls’ sports.” Proponents of the request raised concerns over potential advantages transgender girls could have over their cisgender counterparts.
The education board’s non-binding resolution was added to its three-day agenda on the final day of meetings without public notice, and debated shortly before the board adjourned.
James Fields, who has served as chair of the state board of education since 2015, said during an Alaska Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that adding last-minute agenda items was not a “normal occurrence,” but that a board member had requested the resolution be debated. State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, said he was “deeply troubled” that the board would approve a resolution without public input.
Strickland said he discussed the idea of banning transgender athletes from competing against cisgender girls in February with officials from Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. He said it would be possible to create a division just for cisgender girls, and a coed division for everyone else. Girls already regularly play alongside boys in Alaska on some football and hockey teams, when equivalent teams for girls don’t exist, he said.
Strickland said he was aware of only one transgender student who competed in Alaska high school sports in his nine years working at the association. But ASAA doesn’t track how many transgender students compete in Alaska school sports, he said.
Anchorage Democrat Sen. Löki Tobin, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, is opposed to the association’s proposal and said that it was “troubling” that the state would supersede local control of how school districts organize sports. Calling the policy “appalling,” Tobin said it would violate ASAA’s “own organizational values of integrity and inclusivity.”
Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes sponsored a bill that stalled last year and would have banned transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams. She said a statewide policy was needed to provide consistency for sports across Alaska.
Hughes also said she wants to protect what she said was the “original intent” of Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that made sex-based discrimination illegal in federally funded education programs, and in the process mandated the protections of opportunities for girls to participate in school sports.
The Biden administration announced a Title IX proposal last week that would forbid outright bans on transgender athletes. ASAA’s proposed policy change states that it would comply with all Title IX rules, and it may be allowed under Biden’s proposed Title IX change — which would still allow limits on transgender athletes’ participation in school sports to ensure competitiveness.
Lacey Sanders, deputy commissioner of the Alaska education department, said by email that the department is working with the Alaska Department of Law to understand the impact of the proposed federal policy, which has not yet been adopted.
“The topic of student athletics and questions of sex-related criteria and gender identity is in flux and complicated. It includes questions of competition, fairness, student age and maturity, and educational objectives,” Sanders said in an email.
Caitlin Shortell, an attorney, said the association’s draft policies were “blatantly discriminatory” against transgender children.
“They also violate children’s right to privacy by forcing educators and coaches to identify and separate transgender youth from their peers, and it’s part of a coordinated attack that’s nationwide,” Shortell said, linking the policy to what she called an “assault” on bodily autonomy with restrictions on reproductive rights.
The board’s proposed policy doesn’t specify how the new gender rules would be enforced. The Mat-Su’s policy can require a student to show their birth certificate to establish their “biological sex.”
Critics of a recent Kansas law, which banned transgender students from competing in girls’ sports, raised concerns that there could be “genital inspections” to enforce new rules. After public opposition, provisions that required those kind of inspections were removed from similar bills in Ohio and Florida.
Shortell said any measure to verify a student athlete’s gender would be “offensive” and “invasive” against privacy rights, and would affect both transgender and cisgender girls.
Shortell, who sits on the board of the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit Identity Alaska, said there have been some early discussions about litigation against measures that she said were discriminatory, including Dunleavy’s parental rights in schools bill. But she said the priority for opponents would be blocking those policies before they were enacted to avoid a years-long battle in the courts.
ASAA’s board of directors is composed of eight members elected by regional sporting associations from across Alaska. A ninth student member attends meetings, but does not have a vote. A simple majority of members is needed to approve a change to the association’s bylaws, which could go into effect 30 days later.
Seven board members did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how they would vote. When reached by phone, Tim Helvey, a board member and principal of Eagle River High School, said he didn’t have enough information right now on the policy to say whether he would support it.
The association was established in 1957 as Alaska’s governing body for high school sports and activities. Since 1995, ASAA has operated as a private nonprofit with regulatory power over high school activities in the state, separate from the state Department of Education and Early Development.