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IHSA policy update requires transgender athletes to ask for permission to play

St. Thomas More girls state champions
Heather Coit
AP file
The new guidelines were developed through a months-long process in consultation with IHSA legal counsel, the U.S. Department of Education and the Illinois Secretary of State.

The Illinois High School Association will now vet transgender athletes to determine eligibility for championship play in single-sex sports.

The Bloomington-based organization governing statewide high school athletics updated its policies on trans athletes in a board meeting this week. Student-athletes whose gender identity is different from their sex at birth will need to seek an eligibility ruling to participate in the postseason.

The IHSA will review medical and school registration records, among other supporting documentation to determine eligibility. Students seeking a ruling may also submit a statement affirming their gender identity and letters of support from teachers, family, clergy, etc.

The new guidelines were developed through a months-long process in consultation with IHSA legal counsel, the U.S. Department of Education and the Illinois Attorney General's office.

“It was a clean-up of language,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson.

For example, prior versions of the policy indicated a transgender athlete was a person whose gender identity differed from the sex on their birth certificate. As barriers to changing birth certificates have been reduced for transgender people, the updated policy now says “sex assigned at birth” or “birth sex.”

Anderson said the board limited the scope of their policy to what they control — namely, regional and state-level, postseason competition. The Department of Education leaves decision-making to districts and schools.

“Honestly, if the U.S. Department of Education would come out with a firm position, I think it would help us, along with other state associations,” Anderson said.

Additional policies surrounding regular season eligibility, locker room use and self-identification of transgender athletes are likewise governed at the local level.

The updated IHSA policy does not explicitly provide guidance for non-binary athletes who identify as neither male nor female, since most sports are divided into male and female categories.

“We don’t have any other options; it’s got to be one or the other,” Anderson said. “When they choose their birth sex, then there’s no part of the policy that’s in play. When it is different, then that’s when we have to follow the guidelines in the policy.”

Balancing inclusion and fair play

IHSA’s guidelines were first developed in 2011 in partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Illinois is broadly considered to be inclusive on transgender participation compared to other states.

The change comes at a time of political polarization on trans rights and pressure from some female athletes and coaches, who claim transgender women who went through male puberty have a competitive advantage. A 2022 NPR/Ipsos poll showed nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed transgender girls and women playing on women's teams. Scientists have yet to agree on whether biological differences among trans women pose a threat to fair competition.

Applying for an eligibility ruling is prompted by schools, who are responsible for notifying athletes and parents of the policy. Failure to adhere may result in sanctions on a player or team.

Anderson said rulings will be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration various stages of development during a period of rapid change among teens. Parental and social support surrounding a teen’s choice to transition will also be considered.

Collegiate and professional sports have waxed and waned on their policies regarding transgender athletes. Currently, the NCAA leaves decisions to individual sports. Transgender athletes competing in women’s sports must undergo testosterone testing and meet standards set by each sport. The International Olympic Committee similarly requires athletes who have transitioned from male to female to test blood testosterone levels — how much is allowed has intermittently shifted between 10 and 5 nmol/L. The IOC has also relegated decisions to each individual sport.

Transgender men (those who have transitioned from female to male) have no restrictions to participation in collegiate and professional sports; the IHSA policy does not explicitly state that eligibility for trans men will be handled differently than that of trans women.

IHSA Director Craig Anderson said the updated guidelines "balance the interests of all in a manner which best serves all of our student-athletes." Though not stated outright, Anderson said the policy is mostly directed at transgender girls and women who have gone through male puberty. The board discussed a blanket endorsement for trans men and ultimately decided all trans athletes had to follow the same process.

“We want to try to be as inclusive as we can with students and have them really have a positive high school experience, no matter how they identify,” he said, “at the same time protecting the integrity of competition, in particular during our state series.”

Anderson said he has not heard directly of specific instances of transgender athletes threatening the integrity of fair play in Illinois.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.