Alaska on Thursday became the 24th state to restrict the participation of transgender students in school sports after members of the State Board of Education voted unanimously to limit membership of girls teams to students who were assigned female at birth.
The policy approved Thursday updates the section of Alaska Administrative Code that governs interscholastic activities to say that school districts may join eligible activities associations, like the Alaska School Activities Administration, as long as those associations ensure that only students assigned female at birth participate in girls high school athletics teams.
In consideration of responses to a school survey, schools or school districts must create separate athletic categories for cisgender girls — whose gender identifies match the sex they were assigned at birth — and other student athletes when participating in interscholastic activities in Alaska.
The regulation defines athletics as competitive or contact sports, to be determined by the association.
Thursday’s vote came more than five months after the board adopted a resolution supporting regulations intended to “prioritize competitive fairness and safety” while also allowing students to compete. After the board voted in June to put the proposed regulations out for public comment, more than 1,400 pages of comments were submitted.
Currently, the Alaska School Activities Administration addresses instances of trans athletes wanting to participate in sports on a case-by-case basis. Executive Director Billy Strickland said during Thursday’s board meeting that the association relies on individual schools’ determination of a student’s gender with regard to athletes.
Under ASAA’s existing policies, a student may participate on a team inconsistent with their gender assigned at birth if their school has a written objective policy. If the student’s school does not have a written objective policy, then the student may only plan on the team that matches their gender assigned at birth.
“It’s the only student eligibility rule that we leave up to the member schools to decide,” Strickland said.
When it comes to determining what gender a student athlete was assigned at birth, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Deena Bishop said Thursday that the state already reviews students’ birth certificates to verify information like age.
“In the state of Alaska, we do look for a birth certificate when students enroll in our schools,” Bishop said. “That is a set protocol that we actually have.”
In Alaska, a person may change the gender that appears on their birth certificate through the Alaska Department of Health. Some board members asked Wednesday whether there is a way to tell whether a person’s birth certificate has been changed.
“Is there some kind of a note on the birth certificate that schools or ASAA or whoever, then, are aware of?” asked board member Jeffrey Erickson. “Or is this a loophole that — again, a super small percentage, probably — but is this a loophole that some parent or student could take to kind of manipulate their gender for an advantage?”
Alaska Assistant Attorney General Susan Sonneborn confirmed that a process exists for a person to change the gender on their birth certificate, but said there wouldn’t be any notation that the certificate had been modified.
All of the board’s voting members supported the proposed regulations, after discussing the biological differences between men and women, saying they were trying to get ahead of a problem they think will come up in the future and touting the importance of fairness and safety in athletics.
Felix Myers, who serves as the board’s student advisor, was the only person to vote against the changes. Myers’ vote is advisory. In opposing the proposed changes, Myers said transgender high school athletes are a non-issue in Alaska and that the state board could be using its time more effectively on other challenges facing Alaska schools, like teacher shortages.
“Transgender athletes right now are not the ones that are winning,” Myers said. “They’re losing in this state due to the mental health problems, due to the lack of support and due to the way that issues like this are addressed … I just want to say to those kids that there are people listening that are people who understand, and I really hope that this board would reconsider.”
“Myers also said that many comments received used the word “men” when talking about trans women or “boys” when talking about trans girls. The term “transgender woman” refers to a person who was assigned male at birth and transitioned to align with their identity as a woman. The same is true of transgender girls.”
“One group is talking about men entering women’s locker rooms or other things which we can agree on is not acceptable,” Myers said. “But the other one is talking about trans women, which are real people who exist in this state and are not as insidious as many of the public comments make them out to be or are trying to gain a competitive advantage.”
Lorri Van Diest, the board’s first vice chair, rattled off a long list of studies she said made clear the physiological differences between men and women, and how those differences give men an advantage when it comes to sports.
“If separate divisions were abolished, the benefits of participation tied to winning or having a realistic chance of winning would almost certainly flow primarily to men as men would dominate all are both sports that emphasize speed, power or strength,” Van Diest said. “The main reason to place participants in the sex-segregated competition classes is that it helps to ensure that competitions are as close as they can be.”
Erickson, in response to claims that the regulation changes address a non-issue, said that it is common for a governmental or advisory body to look at issues that may come up in the future. Erickson said he remains concerned about the safety and fairness of trans girls competing on girls sports teams, and suggested those students may face backlash if allowed to participate on the team that matches their gender identity.
“I am absolutely not convinced that allowing transgender girls to participate on girls’ teams puts them, in any way, in a safer environment,” Erickson said. “I absolutely believe that putting them onto a girls team, where another team, you know, may refuse to play competitions, it won’t be — there won’t be a lot of cheering.”
Board members passed the regulation changes unanimously. Myers voted no and the board’s military advisory abstained. The new regulations are subject to review by the Alaska Department of Law.
Also during Thursday’s special meeting, the board voted to issue a decisional explaining the board’s discussion about the issue, which Sonneborn said is sometimes done for a complex issue or one that has a lot of public interest.
“It was my recommendation to issue a decisional document which would essentially summarize the public discussion that was had today supporting the approval of the regulations,” she said. “There is an opportunity if you’re in disagreement to include that dissent with that decisional document as well.”
Recordings of meetings of the Alaska State Board of Education can be accessed at education.alaska.gov/state_board.