The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has issued a letter explaining its finding that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s policy allowing transgender female athletes to compete in girls’ sports violates the civil rights of female athletes.
The 45-page letter comes in response to a lawsuit filed last year by the conservative legal outfit Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of several cisgender female track athletes, who claimed that they lost out on competitive opportunities, as well as potential scholarships, after they finished behind two transgender athletes, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, in various state competitions.
The Office for Civil Rights found that allowing the participation of transgender females in girls’ sporting events violates Title IX, which is intended to guarantee equal opportunities for cisgender female athletes.
“OCR determined that the CIAC, by permitting the participation of certain male student-athletes in girls’ interscholastic track in the state of Connecticut, pursuant to the Revised Transgender Participation Policy, denied female student-athletes athletic benefits and opportunities, including advancing to the finals in events, higher level competitions, awards, medals, recognition, and the possibility of greater visibility to colleges and other benefits,” the letter reads.
The CIAC has claimed its policy is intended to comply with Connecticut civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. Seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have similar athletic policies in place regarding transgender competitors.
In its letter, OCR says it contacted the CIAC, as well as the school districts of Glastonbury, Bloomfield, Hartford, Cromwell, Canton, and Danbury — which the plaintiffs and the transgender athletes attend — to inform them that they had violated Title IX and needed to remedy the situation.
But the school districts were unable to reach an agreement with OCR over a policy regarding transgender competitors. As a result, OCR has said it may “initiate administrative proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue and defer [federal] financial assistance” to the CIAC and those districts if they continue to allow transgender athletes to compete in girls’ sports.
However, the Education Department did note in its letter that it found no evidence to substantiate claims made by the plaintiffs that CIAC or individual schools or coaches retaliated against the plaintiffs because of their opposition to the transgender policy.
In their initial complaint, the plaintiffs had sought to block Miller and Yearwood, both seniors, from competing in the spring outdoor track season, which was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They had also requested that any marks set by Miller or Yearwood be erased from any state, class, or division record books.
In March, the Department of Justice weighed in on the side of the plaintiffs, arguing that it had a “significant interest” in ensuring that Title IX’s prohibitions on sex-based discrimination are interpreted in a manner that only applies to instances where a person is denied opportunities or discriminated against because of their assigned sex at birth.
Lawyers for Miller and Yearwood, with the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that both have undergone hormone treatments that put them on an equal footing with cisgender females. One of the plaintiffs, Chelsea Mitchell, even won two indoor track state titles in head-to-head competition against Miller this year.
Chase Strangio, the deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, blasted the Department of Education’s letter as politically motivated.
“Today’s finding, which is not a legal ruling, represents another attack from the Trump administration on transgender students,” Strangio said in a statement. “Since 2017, [Secretary Betsy] DeVos’ Department of Education has taken consistent aim at transgender students. Once again, the administration is wrong on the law and we will continue to defend transgender students under Title IX and the Constitution. Trans students belong in our schools, including on sports teams, and we will not back down from this fight.”
The ACLU is currently representing two transgender athletes — one in high school and one in college — in a separate case challenging a recently passed Idaho law that prohibits transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports. That law has been denounced by the NCAA, which allows transgender people to compete based on their gender identity so long as they have completed a year of hormone therapy prior to competing.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, noted that bills seeking to ban transgender athletes from competing based on their gender identity are part of coordinated efforts by conservative groups, including Alliance Defending Freedom, which is behind several lawsuits seeking to roll back various LGBTQ rights from marriage to the ability of transgender people to amend their birth certificates.
In a statement, Keisling accused the Trump administration of “carry[ing] ADF’s water” by taking its cues from anti-LGBTQ groups that are seeking to marginalize transgender people or deny their existence altogether.
“Our country is in crisis and yet the Trump administrations remains hatefully focused on telling transgender students that they can’t participate in school sports. Now, they have gone so far as to threaten federal education funding to enforce their hateful policies,” she said. “The department’s view is unsupported by any case law or legal authority, and would overturn almost every state’s current policies and force schools nationwide to ban transgender youth from playing sports or force them to face losing federal money for their schools.”
The Trevor Project condemned the Department of Education’s stance, saying that if carried out, policies prohibiting transgender students from competing would only increase feelings of isolation.
“Title IX was meant to ensure that gender would never be a barrier to opportunity in our nation’s schools; this decision by the administration to use it instead to exclude transgender athletes completely warps this landmark civil rights law into a tool of discrimination,” Sam Brinton, the vice president of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, said in a statement. “At The Trevor Project, we hear directly from transgender and nonbinary youth who only want to be included as who they are. They don’t deserve to be sidelined by their federal government.”
Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings, who previously served as Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe & Drug-Free Schools in the Department of Education for the Obama administration, also condemned the department’s state position, accusing OCR of attempting to subject transgender students to “discrimination, marginalization and rejection.”
“Every student has a right to feel safe in school and should be able to participate in school athletics as their true authentic selves,” Jennings said in a statement. “…This is a shameful attack that intentionally targets transgender youth athletes just for being who they are.”
Jennings hailed the transgender students fighting to compete in sports based on their gender identity as part of a “proud tradition” of trailblazers from historically marginalized communities who made an impact in sports, including Greg Louganis, Jackie Robinson, Rene Richards, and Billy Jean King.
“Sadly, the Trump-Pence administration has chosen a different path and is weaponizing playgrounds in its latest attempt to turn back the clock on full civil rights for all LGBTQ people,” he added. “Just as they stand up to bullies on the playing field, we will stand up to these bullies in the halls of power.”
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