I should have known before I pulled into the parking lot of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) that what was innocuously being billed as a workshop session was going to be anything but ordinary. Arriving thirty minutes early, every parking space was taken and news vans from all the local television stations circled the perimeter of the building. With their satellite poles extended to the sky, the mobile command centers vied for air space to transmit footage once they captured the perfect sound bite, optimally in time for the 5 o’clock news.
On this day, the MSHSL Board of Directors had invited the public to offer input on a proposal they had developed that would allow transgender students to compete on the teams of their affirmed gender. As a quasi-governing body, the MSHSL provides leadership and support in the areas of athletics and fine arts to member schools, which number around 500 within the state. And the proposal, while supported by many in the conference room in which we had gathered, had raised the ire of other attendees, and by God (literally and figuratively), they were going to make sure the Board and everyone else knew it.
Proponents of the policy lulled me into a false sense of security as many of them had the opportunity to speak first. Devoted mothers shared that their transgender children were just like any other student with the same dreams of fitting in and participating on school teams. A top administrator from the St. Paul Public Schools confidently conveyed that his district supported the policy 100%, and affirmed that statement by concluding, “…we welcome our students to bring their whole selves to school every day.” Lawyers proactively argued that the proposal was a compliment to Title IX federal legislation and reminded the board that the NCAA along with 32 other states already had adopted similar policies.
A sociology teacher told the Board that he rode his bicycle 25 miles in the rain to address them because, as someone who worked with teens, he could attest to how badly this proposal was needed. Looking directly at the opponents, many of whom wore buttons representing their feelings of disdain, he asked if any of them had ever met a transgender person and as their eyes diverted his gaze he challenged them to do so.
When a high school student began speaking they (the student’s preferred pronoun) openly wept sharing how much they missed playing basketball. As heartbreaking as that student’s testimony was, equally upsetting was the indifference displayed by the proposal’s opponents. With straight faces they sat unmoved as the child sobbed uncontrollably and with a quivering voice bravely bared their soul so that the Board could understand the magnitude of the decision before them.
As the mother of a transgender child I was encouraged by these supporters’ remarks, believing they resoundingly made the case for the adoption of the proposal, but then came the onslaught of speeches that would suggest otherwise to the Board. I sat in stunned silence as one-by-one our opponents took center stage to weigh in on the subject.
Many hid behind bible verses, one man going so far as to suggest that the proposal, if passed, would contribute to the moral rot of our society. Some parents screamed ‘foul’ because their daughters could lose out on scholarships if transgender females were allowed to be their teammates. And then there were those in the torch-and-pitchfork crowd that took a maneuver directly from the fear monger’s playbook, by bringing up showers and locker rooms, just the thought of which, they knew, would strike terror into the psyche of the uninformed.
Their testimonies were misguided at best, and at worst deliberately divisive. Most demonstrated a clear confusion between gender and sexuality. But the argument made by a woman who came bearing visual aids was what I found most troubling, dehumanizing and pathetic. Placing a gallon-sized glass jar filled with beans on the table, she explained to the Board that the jar represented the 99% of students who are cisgender, while a second, 12-ounce jar on the same table containing just one bean, signified the transgender student population. A population, she maintained, so small that it did not warrant the costs associated with the implementation of this policy. I felt nauseous as the meaning behind her hollow words became clear…put simply, transgender students do not matter.
My son always dreamed of competing on the boy’s football and baseball teams for his school, but knew that would never be an option for him. While his fellow students were trying out for the teams, he sat quietly on the sidelines, feeling more and more isolated and invisible with each passing year. Without an official policy in place, we did not feel he could safely try out for the boy’s teams without experiencing serious physical and mental repercussions – repercussions that would extend into the classroom. Back then we operated under the mantra, “Choose your battles,” and this was a battle we, as a family, did not have the internal fortitude to endure.
Participating on a high school team of one’s affirmed gender should not have to be viewed as a battle to overcome. My son never had the chance to experience the camaraderie of a team sport…to learn those life lessons that can only come from sharing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat side-by-side with young men who have a mutual passion for a sport. It is our hope that with the passage of this proposal, kids who follow in his footsteps won’t have to face this discrimination. Voting to pass this proposal is the right thing to do and we hope the MSHSL Board comes to that conclusion. By doing so, they will show our State and the entire nation that Minnesota high school sports are inclusive, and that every student is welcome and respected. Oh yeah, and that the opinion of people who would deny any child the same rights as his peers isn’t worth a hill (or jar full) of beans.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared on VillageQ.