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There’s No Easy Answer to the Debate Over Trans High School Athletes

Last week, 15-year-old transgender high school student Andraya Yearwood won the women’s state title in Connecticut in the 100 and 200 meter dash. And like every seemingly innocuous news story these days, her wins have ignited a nationwide controversy, this one about transgender inclusion in high school sports — where the competitive stakes are far lower than at the collegiate and professional levels, but where the rules governing trans inclusion are more nascent and the issue is in many ways harder to navigate.

It should be noted that Yearwood didn’t do anything wrong herself. Her participation in the women’s race was in accordance with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s rule governing trans athletes, which states that students can compete “as their stated gender.” And there’s zero indication she cheated, or that any of the girls she competed against were rude to her.

But her victory has been polarizing nonetheless. The far right has framed the events as political correctness coming at the expense of fairness and common sense, while others have celebrated it as a victory for trans inclusion. A third group has adopted a mixed viewpoint, one that accepts Yearwood’s decision to transition but questions whether her biological sex gives her an unfair advantage in women’s athletics. Their sentiment is perhaps best summarized by Kate Hall, who finished second to Yearwood in the 200 after winning the event last year: “It’s frustrating,” Hall told theHartford Courant. “But that’s just the way it is now.”

Yearwood isn’t the first trans high school athlete to spark the ire of social conservatives. The Breitbart crowd was incensed earlier this year when Mack Beggs, a 17-year-old transgender boy on testosterone therapy, went undefeated wrestling against girls. (Texas’ high school athletic body mandates athletes compete as the sex listed on their birth certificates.) Last year, they were pissed about a transgender girl winning a state track championship in Alaska (a situation nearly identical to that involving Yearwood). And in 2015, they were scandalized by a trans high school cheerleader in California.

“I understand this stuff is tough,” says Cyd Zeigler, founder and editor of Outsports, a website that covers LGBT issues in sports. “We have forever had this sports world that’s been divided by gender. But what I keep coming back to is that the most important part of scholastic sports is participation. Everything else — winning, losing, state records — is secondary to participation. And for no one is participation more important than for trans athletes. It gives them confidence and a sense of identity.”

Still, many high school athletes are competitive. And in many cases, the conversation isn’t whether trans high schoolers should participate in sports, but how to include them while maintaining competitiveness. In the case of Yearwood, that issue is complicated by her having not yet undergone hormone therapy, and whether she enjoys an unfair advantage due to her increased levels of testosterone, which can result in greater muscle mass, bone density and tendon and ligament strength.

College and professional athletics have specific standards regarding athletes’ hormone levels — both in terms of banning substances that increase testosterone levels, and requiring trans athletes to undergo cross-sex hormone therapy. “The NCAA and International Olympic Committee have clear policies that mandate, at the very least, trans athletes engage in hormone therapy over a specified period of time,” Zeigler notes. Those rules changes allowed Chris Mosier to become the first transgender athlete to represent the U.S. at the Olympics when he competed in the duathlon in Rio last summer.

But it’s far trickier to implement these kind of restrictions at the high school level, where the athletes are minors and at various stages of their natural hormonal development. “From a ‘fairness’ standpoint, we don’t even know if [high school athletes] have access to hormone therapy treatment,” says Marvin Belzer, head of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and an expert in treating transgender youth.

That said: “There are clear physiological advantages of having male levels of testosterone in terms of athletic performance,” Belzer continues. “That’s why so many athletes cheat and use anabolic steroids. But the overall health of a community is improved by allowing people to self-identify and participate in sports as much as they can.”

For Zeigler, the differences between athletes like Yearwood and her cisgender competitors are comparable to the genetic advantages that top athletes are born with. “Shaquille O’Neal’s genes make him bigger and stronger, to the point where I couldn’t compete with him in a game of 1-on-1. Are his advantages unfair?” Zeigler asks.

“No one talks about the disadvantages Yearwood has — the incredible internal, personal struggles she’s had to go through are unlike anything her peers have experienced,” he argues.

Plus, attempting to regulate a high school athlete’s hormone levels comes with its own batch of issues. Making a teenager’s athletic eligibility contingent upon taking life-altering hormonal drugs is a thorny legal proposition few high schools will ever want to broach. Not to mention, hormone levels vary person to person. As Zeigler notes, some boys don’t hit puberty until well into high school, while others have testosterone coursing through their veins as early as 10 years old, and no one considers those biological differences unfair.

To her credit, Yearwood has, by all accounts, handled the pressure, news coverage and harassment with a remarkable amount of grace, refusing to engage those who’d rather she not race: “Obviously, I’ve gotten some negative attention, but I don’t worry about it much,” she said after winning.

Her father was even more insightful:

“In terms of the fairness aspect, I don’t think about that as a father. I only think about, is my daughter happy, healthy and able to participate in what she wants to do? I don’t care if she wins or loses. I don’t care if she wins and gives the medals back. She got to compete as a girl where she feels she should compete. That’s all that matters to me. … There is a bigger story that has nothing to do with competitive track.”

If nothing else, Yearwood’s success will bring more attention to trans inclusion in sports, and possibly be a catalyst for refining rules on the subject.

“We’ve only really had transgender policies in sports for maybe about a dozen years. And they keep shifting,” Zeigler says. “If trans women start setting all kinds of state records, of course these conversations are going to change. I think everyone understands that. But until then, we should continue to focus on the importance of participation.”