AUSTIN — Making the varsity football squad was a big win for kicker Reilly Fox, even though her team, Fort Worth’s Paschal Panthers, won just three games last fall.
“It’s honestly the best experience in my life,” said Fox, 17, who is lifting weights to prepare for next season. “Everybody’s support was fantastic.”
While Fox, who stands 5 feet, 10 inches, and weighs 155 pounds, is in favor of girls playing on boys teams, she’s more ambivalent about males facing off against girls - competing, for instance, on a volleyball team.
The boys, she said, could “totally dominate.”
The Texas University Interscholastic League, which oversees high school debate and athletics teams, recently moved to resolve just such issues by tying a student’s eligibility for a sport to the gender listed on his or her birth certificate.
The rule, set to take effect in August, is already being blitzed by controversy.
Critics say it creates an uneven playing field and narrows opportunity - especially for transgender students whose birth certificates don’t reflect their gender identity.
A University of Texas at Austin official on Wednesday said the school will conduct an expedited review of the rule, which was submitted to the league’s 28-member legislative council of superintendents and other school administrators in January and passed overwhelmingly.
In an email, Gregory J. Vincent, the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, noted that the league is part of the university.
“Questions have been raised,” he added, “as to whether the policy is in opposition to those in place at the university.”
Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, which advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, said those questions relate to whether the league’s new rule conflicts with UT policies prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
W. Scott Lewis, a Denver attorney and expert on gender equity in sports, said the rule also may run afoul of Title IX, the federal law barring discrimination based on sex in educational institutions.
Under Texas’ interscholastic league rules, girls may play football and baseball in junior high and high school. Nationally, about 1,200 girls played on boys baseball teams last year, and 1,565 girls played football, according to the National Federation Of State High School Associations.
But, in Texas, boys may not play for girls’ teams.
“So boys are not permitted on girls volleyball teams. Boys may not wrestle against girls, and vice versa,” wrote Kate Hector, a league spokeswoman,in an email.
Hector said the rule was “thoroughly vetted.”
Competing with girls
But the league of more than 1,400 schools, which supervises sports for about 800,000 students, is being tightlipped about the rule and why it was necessary.
Officials would not comment further. Nor would school administrators who participated in the vote.
Eddie Bland, a Wise County school superintendent in Bridgeport, voted against the policy, according to a list obtained by the Texas Observer.
But he declined to discuss the matter.
Jamie Wilson, superintendent of the Denton Independent School District, voted for the measure but did not respond to a request for comment.
Joey Florence, athletic director for the Denton schools, said he hasn’t yet been confronted by a male student who wanted a spot on the volleyball squad.
But Florence, father of two daughters, said the prospect of a male player sharing a locker room with the girls is unsettling - even if the player is transgender and identifies as female.
“At some point, we have to define who is a male and who is a female,” he said.
Pat Griffin, a professor emeritus in the social justice education program at the University of Massachusetts, called the rule a “mistake.”
“Schools are supposed to be there to meet the needs of their students, even if they’re a small minority. This is not a frivolous issue,” said Griffin, who focuses on LGBT sports issues.
Only seven states use birth certificates to prove a student’s gender to participate in sports, according to TransAthlete.com , a website that tracks such policies. Griffin said many of those rules are based on “misinformation and stereotypes.”
A number of other states, such as Minnesota, allow students to participate on the basis of affirmed identity — not what’s on a birth certificate.
In Massachusetts, courts have allowed boys to play on girls’ teams. Boys donning field hockey uniforms in that state and others has ignited debate over the fairness of competition and led school administrators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, for example, to block boys from participating.
Such was the concern raised by Fox, who traveled to California this week to be recognized for making a difference in sports.
Then again, she said, “If someone wants to play someone else’s sport, I’m all for it. I like co-ed things.”
Griffin said she supports separate teams for boys and girls.
Students who identify as a member of the opposite gender, however, should be able to compete in individual sports such as wrestling, where athletes are differentiated by weight class, she said.
Asaf Orr, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said transgender students should be able to play sports “consistent with their affirmed gender.”
But those athletes are meeting resistance.
“Unfortunately, in response to an increasing number of students saying, ‘I want to play,’ (states such as Texas) instituted requirements they say safeguards the integrity of sports,” said Orr.
In Texas, transgender students hoping to participate in a sport now closed to them must obtain what’s called a change-of-gender marker on their birth certificate.
Clearing the medical hurdles necessary to obtain that change in court is “daunting,” said Dr. Meredith Chapman, a psychiatrist at Children’s Health Genecis program in Dallas.
Chapman called the athletics league’s new policy “unfortunate” and said it isn’t based on science.
Lewis, the Denver attorney, said he fears such policies are politically motivated.
“When the governing body of athletics passes rules like this and is not commenting on why, that bears noting,” he said.
But Lewis also compared the challenges and changes in rules on sports participation to political and social upheaval of the 1960s. Sports, he said, is undergoing “a second civil rights movement.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said.
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.