Mack Beggs had to choose.
Beggs, a 17-year-old Texas transgender boy who has been taking testosterone for well over a year, could either continue wrestling in a girls’ category—as the state athletics league required—or give up his sport. To him, the choice was obvious.
"I would rather have a chance to compete than not compete at all," he told CNN.
Last Saturday, he won the girls’ 110-pound category in a state tournament.
Now, the media firestorm around Beggs’ unusual victory has exposed the messiness of state athletic association policies for transgender athletes. Beggs would rather have competed against other boys—as he and his family told reporters—and some parents at Euless Trinity high school didn’t want him to wrestle against girls either.
But the University Interscholastic League, a Texas state-level high school athletics organization, had voted successfully last year to determine gender “based on a student’s birth certificate.” And in Texas, where a transgender person’s birth certificate can only be changed after a court order, Beggs’ documentation still says that he is female. Hence his challenging position.
“It’s an impossible choice,” Hudson Taylor, executive director of the advocacy organization Athlete Ally, told The Daily Beast. “Either he competes against girls and is vilified by the parents of those girls—and by whoever isn’t educated on trans issues—or he chooses not to play sports. There is no other opportunity for him.”
Taylor, a former wrestler himself, believes there’s a lesson to be learned from the uproar around Beggs’ victory: “When a school lacks a trans-inclusive policy, everyone loses.”
Currently, only 16 states and Washington D.C. allow transgender athletes at the K-12 level to compete based on their gender identity without any medical requirements—the model currently recommended by LGBT advocates working in the athletics space. On the other end of the spectrum, according to the web resource TransAthlete, seven states require an altered birth certificate or proof of medical intervention—like hormones or surgery—to allow transgender athletes to compete in the appropriate gender category.
These more restrictive policies can be insurmountable hurdles for transgender minors. Getting new identification documents can be a costly and complicated process. And most states still require sex reassignment surgery to change the gender on a birth certificate—surgery that the World Professional Association of Transgender Health doesn’t recommend until the “legal age of majority” anyway.
This puts transgender athletes like Beggs not just in the middle of a blazing culture war, but in the center of an awkward nexus of legal, medical, and athletic policymaking.
Helen Carroll, the Sports Project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and co-author of the NCAA’s 2011 guidelines for transgender athletes, says that it shouldn’t be this complicated. The fully-inclusive policies adopted by 16 states, she says, have worked out just fine.
“Your transgender boys play on boys’ teams, your transgender girls play on girls’ teams, and everybody’s happy,” she told The Daily Beast. “And that’s happening everywhere from Florida to Virginia to South Dakota to Washington state.”
Whereas the NCAA guidelines require that transgender women take medication to suppress testosterone production for one year before competing with cisgender women—at which point, as a 2011 NCAA report on the guidelines notes, “any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate”—Carroll says that such a requirement would be unethical to place on high school athletes.
“Since we’re working with minors we shouldn’t require them to do any kind of medical intervention,” she said.
And besides, many transgender girls will seek out puberty blockers anyway, as Carroll noted in a 2010 report she co-authored for high schools and colleges called On the Team. Any fears about an unfair competitive advantage for those who do not—or, for medical reasons, cannot—take puberty blockers, that report states, are exaggerated. “Many people may have a stereotype that all transgender girls and women are unusually tall and have large bones and muscles,” the report notes. “But that is not true. A male-to-female transgender girl may be small and slight, even if she is not on hormone blockers or taking estrogen. It is important not to over generalize.”
Chris Mosier, founder of TransAthlete and vice president of program development at You Can Play, has long been advocating for high school athletics associations to adopt more inclusive guidelines for transgender athletes. He sees the Mack Beggs situation as an example of what happens when these organizations make policy without consulting medical experts and LGBT advocates first.
“Many of these policies were made with limited information and with certain biases in place,” said Mosier, who is also the first transgender man to make the U.S. National Team after the International Olympic Committee removed its surgical requirement last year. “Texas UIL created this policy, which was overwhelmingly approved by the superintendents, without thinking through how this limits and impacts all student athletes.
Last year, 95 percent of school superintendents participating in the University Interscholastic League voted in favor of the birth certificate requirement. Now, they are learning about the potential consequences of that policy firsthand.
Carroll estimates that there are usually “about four to 10 [trans] kids per state” who get involved in athletics programs. As it turns out, it only takes one to expose the potential problems with a policy.
In response to a request for comment from the Daily Beast, a University Interscholastic League spokesperson pointed to an FAQ which outlines the birth certificate requirement and indicates that the league’s legislative council could theoretically vote to remove that requirement as soon as this June.
In the meantime, the Trump administration’s rescinding of Obama-era Title IX guidance for transgender students will not do much to persuade state athletic associations with more restrictive policies to change course.
The 2016 Obama letter noted that Title IX applied to transgender participation in athletics but permitted “age-appropriate, tailored requirements based on sound, current, and research-based medical knowledge about the impact of the students’ participation on the competitive fairness or physical safety of the sport.”
That letter, Taylor and Carroll say, helped schools and sports leagues start important conversations around transgender participation in athletics.
“I think that the guidelines under the Obama administration at least set the foundation for athletic institutions to be proactive about their policy implementation,” said Taylor. “Now that those recommendations have been rescinded, we’re going to go back to the status quo.”
Carroll is finding hope in the fact that many states, as Buzzfeed reported, have pledged to continue protecting transgender students even though the guidelines have been rescinded. Even so, she fears that President Trump’s decision could “embolden” some people who “doesn’t see a reason to treat trans girls like other girls and trans boys like other boys.” (Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick has certainly continued to pursue a “bathroom bill” that would restrict bathroom use by birth certificate.)
And ultimately, as Beggs’ wrestling victory continues to make headlines, his full participation in high school athletics could depend on the fate of another transgender boy, Gavin Grimm, who will go to the Supreme Court next month to argue for the right to use the boys’ bathroom in his Gloucester County, Virginia high school.
If the Supreme Court decides decisively that Title IX protects transgender students, that would help motivate more restrictive states and sports leagues to change their policies.
“It would give us some more legal power to advocate for those transgender students, certainly in athletics,” Carroll told The Daily Beast.
But until the University Interscholastic League changes course or the judiciary lights a fire under them, Beggs still has to make the same choice—a choice, as Mosier says from experience, that is inherently unfair.
“No athlete should have to choose between being an athlete and being their authentic self,” he said.