University of Texas Won’t Go to Bat for Trans Student Athletes

New UIL rules forcing trans athletes to play based on birth certificates could violate Title IX.

New University Interscholastic League rules forcing transgender student athletes to play according to the assigned sex on their birth certificates will go into effect August 1. The University of Texas, which oversees UIL, has said it won't block the rule.
New University Interscholastic League rules forcing transgender student athletes to play according to the assigned sex on their birth certificates will go into effect August 1. The University of Texas, which oversees UIL, has said it won’t block the rule.

Athena Williams used to enjoy playing baseball — just not “as a dude.”

After coming out as transgender, Williams tried to join the girls’ softball team at Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth.

But she said district officials denied her request due to an informal policy of the University Interscholastic League, the governing body for Texas high school sports, under which student athletes’ gender is based on their birth certificates.

Now a senior, Williams has since found a home as a baton twirler on Polytechnic High’s co-ed cheerleading team, but in her mind, that doesn’t make UIL’s trans ban right.

“All of their ideas are rooted in a big homophobic, sexist thing,” Williams said. “You’re depriving [trans student-athletes] of that high school experience. High school is about playing sports.”

Despite objections from LGBT advocates, UIL’s longstanding informal policy is set to become official August 1 — when it takes effect as an amendment to the league’s constitution.

The amendment, initially approved by UIL’s Legislative Council last year, was overwhelmingly ratified by representatives from member districts in February.

However, LGBT advocates hoped officials at the University of Texas at Austin, which oversees UIL, would veto the amendment since it appears to conflict with the school’s policy against discrimination based on gender identity.

UT-Austin officials confirmed they were reviewing the proposed UIL amendment in April, but university spokesman J.B. Bird indicated this month they have no plans to halt its implementation because underlying legal questions about accommodations for trans students remain unsettled.

Bird noted that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently filed suit against the Obama administration over federal guidance saying public schools must allow trans students to use restrooms and other facilities “consistent with their gender identity.”

“I think that’s definitely causing the university to look very carefully at what’s happening around us … since we’re a state agency, and we have the state pursuing these actions ” Bird said.

Paul Castillo, a Dallas-based staff attorney for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said that by allowing the UIL amendment to take effect, the university is violating Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs..

The U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly said Title IX protects trans students.

“They are violating Title IX by sitting on their hands and waiting for litigation to play itself out,” Castillo said of UT. “They’re putting their own funds at risk, but beyond that, as a university system, they should take a stand.”

Fort Worth Polytechnic High School baton-twirler Athena Williams.
Courtesy of Athena Williams
Fort Worth Polytechnic High School baton-twirler Athena Williams.

Texas is one of seven states with similar restrictions for trans student-athletes, while 15 allow them to compete based on gender identity, according to the national advocacy site TransAthlete.com. The NCAA and International Olympic Committee also have more lenient policies.

Williams said she believes trans sports bans are rooted in unfounded fears that trans girl athletes will dominate girls’ sports. But she noted that most trans people take hormones that level the playing field.

“I know some cheerleaders that can lift full-grown people by themselves, and they’re girls,” Williams said. “I can’t lift them, but they can lift me. It wouldn’t be any advantage. They’re just being petty.”

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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