Gia Drew came out as a transgender woman while she was a teacher and track coach at Kennebunk High. She is the program director of EqualityMaine, which is fighting a bill in the Maine Legislature seeking to ban transgender females from competing in school and collegiate sports. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Gia Drew came out as a transgender woman during her nine years as an art teacher and track coach at Kennebunk High. A lifelong athlete, Drew said she “never really felt comfortable until I was in my 40s” and competing in marathons as a trans woman.

Drew is the program director at EqualityMaine, one of several groups challenging a bill in the Maine Legislature that would ban transgender girls and women from competing in school and collegiate sports against other girls and women.

“Kids shouldn’t have to wait to be themselves. People shouldn’t have to hide who they are to participate in schools,” Drew said.

The bill is part of a wave of legislation across the United States aimed at transgender student-athletes – particularly transgender females. Supporters contend laws are needed to protect the rights of girls and women who could be at an unfair disadvantage competing against those whose birth gender was male.

“These bills send the message, especially a message to trans children, that they are not welcome in the state, in our country,” said Glen Ratliff, 21, a non-binary transgender person who was a female at birth and competed in girls’ swimming and diving at South Portland High.

Maine L.D. 926, “An Act To Ban Biological Males from Participating in Women’s Sports,” applies to transgender females from elementary school through college. The bill is sponsored by five-term state Rep. Beth O’Connor, a Republican from Berwick.

O’Connor said she took on sponsorship of the bill knowing full well she would be a target of criticism. She adamantly believes transgender women – she uses the term “biological males” – have inherent athletic competitive advantages, including greater bone density and typically larger skeletal size and lung and heart capacity, that cannot be fully negated even after hormone treatment or surgery.

“The reason I believe that this is an absolute necessity is I have spoken with young women who have lost their scholarships, they have lost their places on the podium and they feel as though the rules were changed in the middle of the game and they are actually the ones being discriminated against,” O’Connor said.

Opponents of her bill contend it is unnecessary, exaggerates claims of competitive imbalance, and unfairly and even unlawfully targets transgender people, who already face increased risks of bullying, homelessness and suicide.

A second bill, titled “An Act To Strengthen Maine’s Title IX Protections for Biological Women and Girls in Sports,” sponsored by Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, is in the legislative pipeline but has not been fully drafted.

INCLUSIVE POLICY AT MAINE HIGH SCHOOLS

The Maine Principals’ Association, the agency that oversees high school sports in Maine, has had an inclusive policy since 2013 that allows students to participate based on gender identity. The MPA requires transgender students or their parents to request a hearing with its Gender Identity Equity Committee. The hearing is focused on confirming that a student’s gender identity has been consistent and that allowing the gender identity waiver would not create an unfair or unsafe competitive situation.

Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director, said the committee has had “over 30 hearings” since the policy was established.

“It’s possible not all of those (athletes) have chosen to participate, but all of the requests have been approved,” Burnham said. “In the eight years the policy has been in place, it has served us very well and served the students of Maine very well.”

Todd Sampson was the athletic director at Mt. Ararat High when a transgender boy, Leonid Eichfeld, went through the MPA process during the 2014-15 school year and was featured on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

“I don’t think (a state law is) needed in Maine because I think, at the end of day, the people at the MPA are going to do the right thing,” Sampson said.

Maine was among the first states to allow for participation based on gender identity. Across the country, 41 of the 51 state high school athletic associations (including the District of Columbia) have a written policy on transgender sports participation. But they vary widely, from open inclusion (16 states) to requiring some form of proof of gender identity (14 states, including Maine). Eleven states require students to participate based on their birth certificate.

High school transgender athlete Terry Miller, center, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, left, and other runners during the 2019 Connecticut girls’ Class S indoor track meet. Miller’s success as a high school sprinter prompted a lawsuit contending that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s inclusive transgender policy created an unfair competitive environment. AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb

CONNECTICUT RUNNERS SPARK DEBATE

When transgender girls Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller started dominating Connecticut high school track meets in the sprinting events, it pushed the question of whether transgender girls have an athletic advantage firmly into the public spotlight. Miller won four outdoor and two indoor New England high school titles in 2018 and 2019.

That led the families of three cisgender girls to sue the Connecticut Association of Schools, claiming that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s inclusive transgender policy created an unfair competitive environment. Cisgender denotes those whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex.

Among the runners who lost to Miller at New England championship meets were Cheverus High standouts Emma Gallant (a 2020 graduate) and current senior Victoria Bossong.

“Believe it or not, my own female athletes I didn’t hear a word from and they were ready to compete,” said John Wilkinson, the Cheverus track coach. “But as far as adults and as far as coaches that didn’t even have an athlete in the race, yeah, there was a lot of animosity to the point of thinking it wasn’t fair.”

“It’s a hard topic, but it is a real topic,” Wilkinson added. “No matter what your beliefs are, the playing field does appear to be compromised. Without getting into human anatomy, one would think the women would be at a disadvantage.”

Two of Miller’s New England titles were won in 2019 at Thornton Academy in Saco, when she defended her title in the 200-meter dash and was part of Bloomfield High’s winning 1,600-meter relay team.

Longtime Thornton track coach George Mendros, who was on hand that day, said he hopes the Maine Legislature studies the issue of transgender participation.

“Right now, I don’t think it would be fair for a transgender female to compete against other females,” Mendros said. “However, I don’t know enough about the situation to make an accurate decision.”

But, Mendros said, the reason for having interscholastic sports needs to be part of any discussion.

“The main reason for high school sports is to give these kids a chance to do something and give them more self-confidence in their lives,” he said.

At the 2020 New England indoor championships, Bossong beat Miller, then a senior, in their heat of the 55-meter dash. In the final, Bossong was fourth, one spot ahead of Miller. Chelsea Mitchell, one of the plaintiffs in the Connecticut lawsuit, was third.

OPPOSITION TO MAINE’S BILL

Maine’s bill would exclude transgender girls from elementary age through college, including intramural sports.

“So you’re talking about the youngest kids all the way through high school and into college. It’s a very blunt instrument,” said Mary Bonauto, a Portland lawyer and the civil rights project director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defense (GLAD).

GLAD is among the groups actively opposing the bill, which also include the Maine Human Rights Commission, MaineTransNet, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and the Maine Women’s Lobby. Gov. Janet Mills has called L.D. 926 a “discriminatory bill” that “should not become law.”

Under the Maine Human Rights Act of 2005, people cannot be discriminated against based on their gender identity.

Based on the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 1.6 percent of high school-age students in Maine (about 900 teenagers) identify as being transgender. Half of the transgender youth reported seriously considering suicide in the past year, compared with 15 percent of cisgender students. Nationally, transgender people are at greater risk of being a victim of violence, particularly transgender women and transgender people of color.

Members of the transgender community say there is little doubt they have once again become a political target, as was the case when states tried to ban transgender people from using public bathrooms based on their gender identity.

“We are seeing this influx of attacks on the trans community again. It’s a playbook that gets used every couple of years,” said Quinn Gormley, the executive director of MaineTransNet.

According to a survey done by GLAD, Maine L.D. 926 is one of 44 active bills across 26 states that would ban transgender students from participating in school sports based on their gender identity. Most of the bills, like in Maine, are specifically directed toward banning students who were identified as male at birth from competing in a girls’ sport.

“This is largely an invented issue,” said Gormley, a trans woman who grew up in rural Maine but played sports on boys’ teams. “There’s not some big history of trans athletes in Maine, and certainly there isn’t a fairness problem that is documented in our state.”

SEVERAL STATES PASSING BANS

Bills targeting transgender athletes are gaining traction across the country, with significant support from groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization focused on issues of religious freedom. ADF represents the plaintiffs in the Connecticut lawsuit and also college athletes asking for an appeal of a federal judge’s injunction that blocked Idaho’s 2020 law that bans transgender women from playing girls’ or women’s sports. Idaho was the first state to pass such a law.

This month Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a similar bill into law. South Dakota’s Legislature passed a bill that Gov. Kristi Noem didn’t sign, claiming it reached too far by including college sports. On Tuesday, Arkansas’ Legislature passed its Fairness in Women’s Sports, requiring that sports participation be based on birth gender.

“Girls deserve to compete on a level playing field. Allowing males to compete in girls’ sports destroys fair competition and women’s athletic opportunities,” said ADF legal counsel Christina Holcomb in a news release praising the Arkansas Legislature.

O’Connor said she had never heard of Alliance Defending Freedom. She said “a grandfather” asked her to forward the legislation. O’Connor says when the bill, currently under review by the Judiciary Committee, goes to a public hearing she expects the grandfather and several female athletes to speak in its favor.

O’Connor admits she does not expect the bill to be passed by Maine’s Democratic-controlled Legislature. But, she said, “I absolutely feel it needs to be talked about. That’s why I want to have a conversation in a controlled setting” of a public hearing.

Leonid Eichfeld, the trangender male who competed on boys’ swimming and tennis teams at Mt. Ararat High, is now 20 years old and enrolled at Southern Maine Community College. Even if he were still in high school, he knows he would not be personally affected because O’Connor’s bill targets transgender girls and women. That makes him no less angry.

“I think it’s so hateful. I really do,” Eichfeld said.

“I felt more connected to the school community when I was on the swim team and the tennis team and it was fun to be with friends,” he added. “It was a valuable learning experience, the ideas of perseverance and effective practice and that community and your team cheering you on. It does wonders for your self-esteem and it does wonders for your academic performance.

“It’s so necessary for every student to be able to be part of that.”

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