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Breaking down the federal ruling on transgender athletes in Connecticut

Competing as a freshman for Cromwell High School in 2017, Andraya Yearwood won the 200 meter dash during her first track meet as a transgender female.
Mark Mirko
The Hartford Courant
Competing as a freshman for Cromwell High School in 2017, Andraya Yearwood won the 200-meter dash during her first track meet as a transgender female.

A federal appeals court recently dismissed a challenge to Connecticut’s policy allowing transgender girls to compete in girls high school sports, rejecting arguments by four cisgender runners who said they were unfairly forced to race against transgender athletes.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City ruled in favor of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), the state’s governing body for high school sports, and several local school districts sued by the cisgender girls and their families. The ruling upheld a lower court judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the policy.

The court found the lawsuit moot and ruled the cisgender girls lacked standing to sue, in part because their claims were speculative that they were deprived of wins, state titles and athletic scholarship opportunities. The court also noted that the cisgender girls won races in which a transgender athlete competed.

“We really appreciate that — and at the end of the day — the court agrees with us,” said Elana Bildner, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut who represented two transgender students who competed in girls events.

She called the ruling a critical victory for fairness, equality and inclusion and said the court’s decision “strikes at the heart of political attacks against transgender youth.”

“In this time when trans people, and particularly trans kids, are just facing these relentless attacks, it’s a very welcome win. It’s a very welcome affirmation of our clients’ rights to belong,” Bildner said. “I really hope it ensures that no student is denied opportunities because of who they are,” she said. “That’s the crux of this case.”

Christiana Kiefer, an attorney for the cisgender athletes, said two of her clients were still awarded scholarships. But as for whether competing against two transgender athletes played any role in denying scholarships to her other two clients, Kiefer said, “we’ll never know.”

ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb speaks at a press conference on Feb. 12, 2020, on the steps of the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut.
Provided Photograph
Alliance Defending Freedom
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, speaks at a news conference on Feb. 12, 2020, on the steps of the state Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut.

Kiefer is a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Connecticut cisgender athletes. She said the group is considering all legal options, including appeal, because her clients deserve access to what she calls fair competition.

According to the Associated Press, there are about 15.3 million public high school students in the United States. A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. But “the number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports,” the AP reports.

Kiefer said that “it's not a solution to say, ‘Oh, it’s such a small number.’”

“It’s an increasing number,” she said. “And it’s wrong for any female athlete to be denied athletic opportunities Title IX specifically allocated to her.” Title IX is the federal law that allows girls equal educational opportunities and activities that receive federal assistance. However, Kiefer said she did not have statistics to share stating how many female athletes were allegedly being denied athletic opportunities.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 18 states across the U.S. — mostly Southern and Western states — enacted laws or issued rules that ban or limit transgender sports participation.

Kiefer said those states are stepping up to protect women’s athletics. She also said her lawsuit is not about keeping high school transgender girl athletes from competing in sports.

“I think it’s important to clarify that no one is against anyone competing in sports. In fact, we think that everyone has a place in sports. The question is, ‘Where’s it most fair for each person to compete?’” she asked. “I think there are a number of different creative solutions that athletic associations [and] that school districts can find, whether that’s making the male category an open category for anyone to compete in — other national and international sporting bodies have suggested a transgender category. I think there are a lot of different solutions.”

The CIAC argued that its policy is designed to comply with a state law requiring all high school students to be treated according to their gender identity. It also said the policy is in accordance with Title IX.

Bildner, with the ACLU of Connecticut, said that transgender student-athletes belong on sports teams and in schools and that all transgender youth should be celebrated and protected for who they are.

“This is the first case to address athletics specifically, but as other courts have held, trans kids — trans people — are people. They’re protected, and Title IX doesn’t change that,” Bildner said. “It doesn’t allow you, somehow, to discriminate against them.”

Connecticut Public Radio's Matt Dwyer contributed to this report.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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