For Grace Brethren Christian School, a small independent school in southern Prince George’s County with students ranging from prekindergarten to 12th grade, the decision to leave its athletic conference was initially made after it grew tired of the long travel to many of its sporting events.
But in December, it accelerated the departure. Instead of leaving in the spring as originally scheduled, the school made an expedited exit from the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference (PVAC) because of the league’s allowance of transgender athletes to compete on teams consistent with their gender identities.
George Hornickel, Grace Brethren’s school director, wrote in an email that the “transgender issue” is what pushed up the move, citing the school’s Christian principles. He added: “[Schools] that allow boys to play on girls’ teams is a form of cheating [and] it gives them an advantage over girls teams who only play female athletes.”
Hornickel said the PVAC “began to allow male athletes, identifying as females” to play in league games in the fall of 2018 without a discussion or a two-thirds vote as required by the league. The conference said it always has allowed athletes to compete on teams consistent with their gender identities but agreed by majority vote in February to update its bylaws to include specific wording.
The Washington International School student newspaper first reported the change.
“Our league is committed to honoring everyone’s identity, and that is very important to us,” said PVAC President Taisto Saloma, athletic director at Washington Waldorf School. “It’s something we’ve, in this year in particular, spent a lot of time talking about: How can we make sure we are doing that in a space that is changing and evolving, as it is becoming more apparent to all of us as educators and people who work in schools?”
As the visibility of transgender and gender-nonconforming students increases across the country, more high school administrators and leagues are facing the decision of whether to update bylaws with a more inclusive policy.
Nine state high school athletics associations are considered to have “discriminatory” policies when it comes to gender identity, according to the website transathlete.com. There are 11 state associations, including those in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, that are deemed to have fully inclusive policies. Other states either have no policies or ones that are described as needing “modifications” before they can be considered fully inclusive.
Independent athletic leagues such as the PVAC are free to create their own policies.
The PVAC is a diverse group of independent schools in the metropolitan Washington area, some of which have religious affiliations. Grace Brethren now participates in the Maryland Independent School Athletic League (MISAL), which has a policy that states, in part, that girls may not compete on boys’ teams and boys may not compete on girls’ teams. It does not specifically address transgender athletes.
“We are a Christian school and hold to the biblical teaching from Genesis 1:27 and other related passages which states, ‘So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them,’ ” Hornickel wrote. “This is how it has been throughout the history of the world, and we believe there are only two sexes: male and female.”
Critics of gender-inclusive policies for athletes say they create an unfair competitive advantage. One instance that received national attention recently involved two transgender sprinters who finished first and second at a Connecticut high school girls’ indoor track championship in late February.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, was among those who spoke out against the transgender athletes being allowed to compete with the girls, tweeting: “I feel so sorry for the young ladies who trained their whole lives to be the best in their state and to hopefully attain scholarships etc etc . . . this is a grave injustice.”
Another story that brought national scrutiny to the issue was when transgender wrestler Mack Beggs, who identified as male, won the Texas state girls’ wrestling title in 2017. The University Interscholastic League, which oversees sports in Texas public schools, ordered Beggs, whose transition from girl to boy had begun two years before and included testosterone injections, to continue competing in the girls’ division despite a heavy uproar.
Hornickel said concerns over an unfair competitive advantage was part of the reason his school left the PVAC earlier than planned.
“It undermines Title [IX]. … When guys identifying as transgendered girls begin making up the rosters of female teams, girls who otherwise could have started are now coming off the bench, and girls who were the reserves may not make the teams,” Hornickel said.
In the Washington area, other independent athletic leagues such as the Independent School League (ISL) and the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAC) have gender-inclusive policies in place to protect transgender athletes. The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC), which says it is currently updating its handbook for next school year, does not have a specific gender policy but acknowledges it has had talks among members about gender identity.
Saloma said athletic directors at PVAC schools have had meetings about transgender athletes since around June 2016. After studying the policies of states and other conferences, the PVAC updated its policy, which had stated that “an athlete may only participate on a team of the same gender.”
The revised policy made in February reads: “The PVAC is committed to the safety of, and respect for, all participants. Every student-athlete should have the opportunity to participate in PVAC activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity. The PVAC and its member schools will rely on the gender determination listed by the student’s school in consultation with the student-athlete and will not make separate gender identity determinations.”
“It is a value for our league to make sure we are [respectful] of our athletes, that we know about it and that the league is proactive about it,” Saloma said. “We are just trying to make it clear and make it as easy as possible and also a way for the league to state that this is important to us.”