50 Years After Title IX, Transgender Athletes Advocate for Protections in High School and College Sports

WTTW News produced this story as part of a larger event surrounding the 50th anniversary of Title IX. “Title Nine at 50: Past, Present, Future” is a three-day event at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus running Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It's free and open to the public and this story will be screened on Friday as part of the symposium.

On a crisp October day, the top players Illinois high school tennis players hit the courts at Buffalo Grove High School as they vie to become the 2022 state champions.

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The winners will walk away with a trophy, pride, bragging rights and possibly more – a shot playing on a college team, or the chance for a scholarship.

It’s all possible, thanks to Title IX, the transformative federal law that since 1972 has required schools that get federal money to give women and girls the same opportunities as men and boys, including in sports.

“I think you could make a case that Title IX is the most important law signed in our country over the last 50 years,” said sports journalist Christine Brennan. “I realize that’s lots of competition for that honor, but it’s not only what Title IX has given us over the past 50 years. But what’s going to explode on the American landscape over the next 20, 30, 40 years.”

An explosion, of women leaders in sports, politics and boardrooms.

“The common denominator of all of these women leading the nation, wherever they are, will be they that they played sports because of Title IX. We are now teaching the other 50% or 51% of the population not only how to win at a young age, but how to lose a young age. Teamwork. Sportsmanship. All those things that for generations we were just teaching their brothers,” Brennan said.

Brennan, a national sports columnist for USA Today and a commentator for ABC News and CNN, is a pioneer in her own right as one of the nation’s first prominent female sports journalists. She credits to being among the first to take advantage of Title IX as a six-sport high school athlete.

For most girls today, having the option to play sports is a given. And not just tennis or cheerleading.

For example, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), which governs high school activities in the state, now hosts a high school girls’ wrestling competition.

In recent years, a new issue has come to the forefront. Just who should be protected by Title IX and how is a matter of controversy as politicians and sports leaders alike grapple with how to treat transgender athletes.

Ash O’Connor, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, is among the current generation of athletes who didn’t think twice about girls playing school sports; whether she could was another question.

“Imagine that you grew up as something that you’re not. Or, you knew what you wanted for yourself, but you were forced to be something else. The opposite,” O’Connor said. “Growing up male, it was not something that I enjoyed.”

Changing in the locker room when she played on a boys’ hockey team “was terrible, I just wanted to like rip my skin off. It was a horrible, horrible feeling.”

Not anymore.

O’Connor’s happy as a freshman at College of DuPage where she is studying to be a therapist so she can help other trans kids.

She came out in high school, dropped hockey and in her senior year made the girls’ varsity badminton team at Downers Grove South.

But she needed special permission from the IHSA to play.

The IHSA has a policy for trans athletes. Students who want to play on a team different than the gender on their birth certificate or school registration have to submit information documenting their gender identification; statements from a parent or health care provider; and if available, medical information like hormone treatments, sex-reassignment surgery or counseling. 

It’s up to the IHSA Director Craig Anderson whether to grant the request.

The policy also calls for Anderson to take into account whether there’s a “gender advantage.”

“We have to in my opinion be inclusive for students, and I’ve tried to do that to the best of my ability, along with maintaining some balance in athletic participation. And so someone isn’t a competitive in a sport because of a gender-related advantage,” Anderson said. “Navigating that is challenging.”

Anderson said he receives between 20 to 25 requests per year from students looking to change sports participation, mostly from female-to-male athletes.

He said he has declined only one petition, from a high school senior looking to compete in girls’ track and field.

Anderson said the student’s application didn’t include substantial evidence of a gender-affirming journey, and that the student would have had a clear advantage in girls’ track based on their previous jumping distances and sprint times.

Most high school athletes aren’t at the level it would impact the outcome of a contest, Anderson said.

It worked out for Ash O’Connor, who said having to submit personal information about her estrogen and hormone blockers to an association she feared could take advantage of it was “terrifying.”

But O’Connor said playing badminton was one of the best decisions of her life.

“Being able to play sports as myself was so impactful to me. I was finally able to do something that I loved as the person that I am,” she said. “Being able to say like hey I’m a woman, I’m on the women’s team, this is who I am.” 

O’Connor benefitted from the support of her teammates and coach.

Math teacher Joceyln Painter says her only trepidation was protecting Ash from potential backlash, but there was none.

“She was able to play her heart out — she had tough loses and great wins just like everyone else,” Painter said. “I just hope that there are more students who feel, or at least hear the story and, ‘Well maybe I can have that joy as well, that ‘I’ve had a tough time where I’ve made this change and it doesn’t mean that these doors are closed for me.’ ”

If O’Connor had tried out for a more prominent sport – perhaps softball, basketball or volleyball – Painter wonders whether the situation would have received more attention.

“This is new to me. Do I think ‘Oh, could that have made a big difference in some sports or in some things?’ Absolutely. Do I think that maybe Ashley came in with some maybe, an extra strength or something? Maybe she did, or maybe she didn’t,” Painter said. “I’ve also seen people hit way harder than her, I’ve seen people hit faster than her.”

Painter says society puts a lot of things (and people) in boxes that don’t fit.

She’s no expert, she said, but brainstormed potential options are the development of a new transgender division or more co-ed sports.  

“Maybe our categories change. Or rankings change – you’re the highest-ranking woman whether you play with men, or all women,” Painter suggested.

While O’Connor and dozens of other Illinois high school athletes got to compete with teams matching their gender identity, it’s harder at elite levels.

FINA, the international swimming federation made a splash in June with a policy banning male to female athletes from competing in womens’ divisions unless they didn’t go through male puberty or medically transitioned before age 12, and keep testosterone levels low. 

That could be a difficult threshold for some swimmers to meet given that many states ban youth from gender-affirming medical care.

Trans advocates and the Human Rights Campaign have derided the policy as discriminatory, while FINA defends the decision as having been vetted by a “Science Group” made of experts in the “fields of physiology, endocrinology, and human performance, including specialists in sex differences in human performance and in transgender medicine.”

According to FINA’s policy on competition eligibility report “the Science Group reported that biological sex is a key determinant of athletic performance, with males outperforming females in sports.”

As for college sports, a new NCCA policy that will be phased in from the 2022 winter season through the 2024 season currently has a provision that calls for at least a year of testosterone suppression therapy and documented proof testosterone levels are at the standard set by the particular governing body for each sport.

These types of limits have prevented Jessica Gordon-Song from racing.

Were she to cross the finish line first in an elite-level events like this month’s Chicago marathon, Gordon-Song she could be disqualified, sanctioned or barred from future participation in the sport altogether because of where she’s at in her transition.

Gordon-Song is fast; she said she can clock at mile at 4 minutes 19 seconds, and could break records by shaving off 7 seconds.

“People think I’m doing this because of some sort of horrible, ulterior motive. I’m not. I’m simply fast. And I want to be able to run, compete and at the end of the day just like anybody else say that I left it all out there on the track,” she said.

Gordon-Song transitions, she takes estradiol and spironolactone she says help give her the right body and mindset.

“I feel like I’m in puberty all over again,” Gordon-Song said, adding jokingly “I didn’t get enough of it the first time, I thought why not go for round two.”

The hormone therapy is helping her to “feel more at home” with her body.

“It’s never though, like, all sunshine and rainbows. I do have those days where it’s hard to look in the mirror. It’s hard to be comfortable wearing certain things because it just really highlights parts of my body that I’m not okay with yet,” she said.

In addition to the emotional turbulence, Gordon-Song says the drugs another effect.

She said she is jeopardizing her health so she’ll be able to compete.

“My muscles are tearing apart and I’m losing muscle mass,” she said. “Because I’m an athlete and I have to maintain such a low level of testosterone, I’m literally thinning out my bones. Just to go ahead and cut down to what they consider an acceptable testosterone level.’” 

Things are beginning to change in other areas.

The Chicago Marathon this year offered a non-binary division, though there is frustration among some in the trans community it wasn’t promoted.

Gordon-Song, who founded the group TransRuns, said she would have ran had she known about it as it would have been a “safe haven to try and not worry about repercussions.”

How to level the playing field when it comes to trans athletes is a battle playing out in courtrooms and statehouses across the country. And it’s a subject many find difficult to talk about.

WTTW News reached out to numerous organizations and individuals to hear what their concerns might be about potential competitive advantages some trans athletes might have on the playing field. None wanted to comment on camera.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, at least 18 states have passed laws banning trans athletes from school sports.

State Rep. David Friess, R-Red Bud, introduced a measure (House Bill 4082) in May 2021 that would amend the state’s interscholastic athletic statute to stipulate that “an athletic team or sport designated as being female is available only to participants who are female, based on their biological sex.”

The measure has not advanced in Democratic-controlled Illinois.

In June, President Joe Biden celebrated Title IX’s 50th anniversary with a proposal from the U.S. Department of Education that proposes changes, including those that give protections to LBGTQ students.

But the regulations mostly avoid the issue of trans athletes.

The department has yet to introduce promised new Title IX rules on how schools can determine eligibility for transgender students wanting to play sports.

Ash O’Conner says testosterone testing is “absurd.”

“There’s always going to be people that have biological advantages. Look at Michael Phelps, he has a wider wingspan, super big hands and feet, larger lung capacity. All of that sort of stuff. He wasn’t taken out of the sport because he was too good or anything,” she said.

Gordon-Song likewise said it could lead to invasive testing and discrimination against cis-women born with high testosterone or who naturally perform beyond what’s considered the threshold for females.

“And because of that they’re going to say hey you must be doping, you must get your testosterone level checked, let’s go ahead and see what’s between your legs and get you examined that way,” she said.

Gordon-Song said it policy-makers can’t “have it both ways” by making “testosterone the holy grail” while forbidding trans youth from taking puberty-blockers that would keep their levels down. 

She said the more society tries to turn trans athletes into “monsters” the more she will press on, in part so future generations don’t suffer.

“Let’s not subject (youth) to all these horrible ideas that we’re putting in place, like ‘hey, you can run. You can do this. But just remember, if a parent doesn’t like you, get ready to show everybody your privates’ to a 13-year-old girl. That doesn’t need to be existing,” Gordon-Song said. “It only undoes everything that Title IX was about, which was the idea of not having to basically live in these dark ages for women, in sports and in other parts of life.”

A federal lawsuit, Soule v. Connecticut Association of Schools, brought by several high school track starts alleges they lost opportunities to win races and set records after trans women were allowed to compete in girls’ track-and-field events, effectively destroying all that Title IX has done for girls’ sports.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious organization that is representing the litigants, did not return WTTW News requests seeking an interview.

“Beliefs don’t change biology and the result has been anything but fair,” said Chelsea Mitchell, one of the athletes, in a video on ADF’s website. “Since 2017, the two biological male runners who have competed in girls’ high school track in Connecticut have won 15 women’s track championship titles. Titles that were held by nine different girls in 2016. Four of those championship titles should have been mine. They’ve (the trans athletes) also shattered girls track records.”

The debate over trans athletes shows little sign of resolving soon; a recent Washington Post report found 155 bills the newspaper labeled as “anti-trans” were introduced by state lawmakers nationally in 2022, up from 19 in 2018. 

The topic of trans athletes often provokes knee-jerk outrage, when Brennan said it’s nuanced.

“For anyone to attack someone else for having this part of the conversation I think just shows a lack of understanding of a complex issue that good people can disagree on that, that people on both sides of the issue can look at each other and say ‘I’m 100% for your rights, full stop. Women’s sports is something that we need to work our way through,” she said.

A half century into Title IX, sports journalist Brennan predicts the debate over how to work toward “fairness, inclusion and opportunity for all” will play out for another 50 years.

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