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Trans Athletes Competing in Women’s Sports

Photo of Seattle Academy Alumna A Schenck 18 Trans Athletes Competing in Women’s Sports

“We are student-athletes and we have a responsibility to stand up for trans athletes now and in the future,” says Aliya Schenck, Seattle Academy Class of 2018. 

This was the sentiment behind the letter and petition that Aliya Schenck, Alana Bojar, and Athlete Ally sent to the NCAA Board and President, signed by 550 collegiate athletes, and calling for the organization to respond to recent bill proposals banning transgender women in sports. 

The petition demanded that the NCAA take action and ban tournaments in states that prohibit trans athletes from competing, citing the NCAA’s nondiscrimination policy. The letter blatantly asked the NCAA to make “a firm statement that you will uphold the NCAA Anti-Discrimination Policy and only operate championships and events in states that promote an inclusive atmosphere.”

The letter made its way into The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and needless to say, prompted a response from the NCAA. “We were grateful [the organization] came to us. Our goal was not to get our name in the NYT. Our goal was to get a response from the NCAA. Our goal was to make noise about these bills,” says Aliya. 

Aliya is a Seattle Academy alumna who is currently pursuing a mathematics degree with double minors in economics and gender studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She runs track and field — mostly mid-distance, 400 meters and 800 meters — and participates as an Athlete Ally Chapter Co-Chair. 

Alana is a fellow member of the Athlete Ally Chapter, a national organization with numerous college chapters aimed at fighting against homophobia and transphobia in sports. Aliya and Alana were asked by the organization if they would write a letter to the NCAA; they took the opportunity and ran with it. 

In March 2020, Idaho’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act was signed into law. The bill banned transgender women and girl athletes from competing on teams that align with their gender identity, at all levels from kindergarden through college. The bill was passed right after Transgender Day of Visibility — though as lives were simultaneously uprooted by the pandemic, it didn’t get proper attention. It was in June 2020 that Athlete Ally reached out to Aliya and Alana. 

That first letter and petition, which received 550 student-athlete signatures from around the country, was not loudly received. The lack of response was telling, as Aliya recalls. 

In March 2021, Aliya and Alana wrote a second letter. In it they reminded the NCAA of their responsibility to ensure the well-being and safety of all student-athletes, and their proclamation “to protect them physically and mentally, on the field and off.” This time they collected 750 signatures from student-athletes who would not stand by these states and their explicit discrimination against trans athletes.

The topic of transgender rights began to gain momentum, with Arkansas governor vetoeing the bill banning gender-affirming medical care for trans youth, and Florida lawmakers passing a bill that allows legal genital inspections if an athlete’s gender is in question. 

This time the NCAA came out with a more formal statement outlining their support for trans athletes — but not explicitly saying that they will pull out of championships in states that pass this legislation. “Having the NCAA’s support is a big step,” Aliya says. “But there’s much more work to be done.”

Aliya is now actively searching for opportunities to speak out against trans bias. “Trans people are inherently discriminated against in this county,” Aliya explains. “Any opportunity that I have to help contribute and help protect my fellow student-athletes, or future student-athletes, I am going to take. At the end of all this, if one trans athlete is able to play the sports that they love because of the work that we have done, then I will consider it a victory.” 

Aliya draws from her experiences and understanding of how much sports have improved her life. “They shaped me to be the person I am today,” she states. “And to know that kids aren’t getting that opportunity because they are just trying to be themselves; it shouldn’t sit right with any athlete.” 

Aliya started playing sports when she was 3 or 4 years old. She played all kinds of sports — soccer, basketball, taekwondo, and track and field. 

“Sports are an outlet, after a long day being forced to sit still, to go and release all this energy that I had,” says Aliya. “We see the arguments against trans athletes competing. At the end of the day, everyone is playing sports because they are fun, and we shouldn’t deny anyone that opportunity.”

Aliya reports not being super into political advocacy when attending high school at SAAS. “If I told my senior self [that I would be advocating for trans athletes in the NYT and Sports Illustrated] I would not have believed it,” she chuckles. However, she recalls being on the speech and debate team and connecting that it, as she says “definitely taught me how to use my voice and be comfortable using my voice." 

Aliya looks to the activists that have created change in the past and sees a pattern in their successes. Real change requires everyone to speak up, not only individuals in communities experiencing discrimination. 

“As an ally to the trans community and as an athlete, I know that in some circles my voice will have more weight because I am not trans. They may listen to cis athletes. I am not trying to take the voice away from [trans athletes]... I want to make sure that the focus and strength is associated with them. I just have to be an ally in the best way that I can.”

Aliya ran both track and field and cross country during her time at SAAS and knows how important the lessons taught through sports are. However, she says that the lessons off the track made a more lasting impact. “SAAS taught me to advocate for myself, how to write and communicate efficiently, how to take accountability for my actions, how to not be afraid to step up and lead, and how to make room for others whose voices may not be heard.”

At the moment there are incredibly few trans athletes in the NCAA and the number of openly trans athletes in high schools is small. As Aliya puts it: “[Lawmakers] are trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. We need to remember at the end of the day that trans kids are kids, trans athletes are athletes, trans people are people.” 

It was 14 years ago that the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) established a policy for gender identity participation in school sports within Washington State. We are fortunate to be one of 17 states with a fully inclusive policy (Section 18.15.0). As the WIAA states it: “Fundamental fairness, as well as most local, state and federal rules and regulations, requires schools to provide transgender student-athletes with equal opportunities to participate in athletics.” 

There are currently 144+ different bills seeking to ban trans athletes. “It is a scary time to be trans,” says Aliya. 

Aliya reminds us that being a part of any community means more than just being in it. “We have a responsibility to respect those within our community. Everyone should feel safe; feel supported. Community is the sense of belonging to something larger than yourself. Everyone must do their part to make sure the community thrives.” 

If you have a trans athlete on your sports team, here are simple things you can do to show support:

Be there for them, support them, let them know you are in their corner. Also, do your research. If there is a bill in your state trying to attack trans athletes, find a way to fight against it. And, if you are interested in having this conversation, just make sure that you have the correct language to do so. Here is a great website by trans athlete Chris Mosier that breaks down terminology, policies, and resources to take action. 

Here are some additional resources:

Articles about the Athlete Ally letters to the NCAA: 

In Focus, Spring 2022

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