Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education President Debbie Cary testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly about a resolution that would support the separation of transgender and cisgender student athetes on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education President Debbie Cary testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly about a resolution that would support the separation of transgender and cisgender student athetes on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Assembly OKs resolution supporting separation of cisgender girls, other student athletes

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday voiced support for the separation of transgender and cisgender girls in high school sports. The body during its regular meeting passed a resolution supporting a regulation being considered by the Alaska State Board of Education, which would change the section of Alaska Administrative Code governing interscholastic activities.

The state board in June voted to solicit public comment on a regulation that would create separate athletic categories for cisgender girls — whose gender identities match the sex they were assigned at birth — and other student athletes when participating in interscholastic activities in Alaska.

The proposed regulation specifically says that Alaska schools and school districts may join eligible activities associations, like the Alaska School Activities Association, as long as those associations ensure only students assigned female at birth participate in girls high school athletics teams.

The new regulation would define athletics as competitive or contact sports, as determined by the association. Currently, ASAA regulates the participation of trans athletes in Alaska high school sports on a case by case basis.

The resolution considered at Tuesday’s assembly meeting was sponsored by Richard Derkevorkian, who represents Kenai, and formally states the borough assembly’s support for the separation of cisgender girls from other high school athletes in sports. Assembly members Tyson Cox, Bill Elam, Brent Hibbert and Borough Mayor Peter Micciche signed on as co-sponsors.

“The ability of athletes who are males at birth to (compete) in middle and high school girls’ sports is not congruent and may directly conflict with the goal of providing a fair and safe competitive playing field for all,” the resolution says.

Tuesday’s assembly vote came after extensive testimony and debate from attendees and assembly members. Of the 10 people who testified on the resolution Tuesday, four said the assembly should vote the resolution down and five said the assembly should pass the resolution. The other person testifying did not take a position on the resolution. An additional 24 pages of public testimony were submitted in advance of the meeting.

When discussing issues of transgender rights, some who testified or submitted comments referred to trans girls as “boys” and trans women as “men.” The term “transgender woman” refers to a person who was assigned male at birth and transitioned to align with their identity as a woman. The same is true of transgender girls.

Those who spoke in favor of the resolution said biological differences between men and women give some student athletes a competitive advantage over others and that separating cisgender and transgender girl athletes would ensure competitive fairness. Those opposed said the resolution is divisive, not within the purview of the borough and sends the wrong message to an already vulnerable group of students.

Alex Koplin, of Homer, told assembly members Tuesday that he is a former athletic director at Homer Middle School and that regulations like those being considered by the Alaska Board of Education could put school athletic staff in the position of having awkward conversations with students. He urged the assembly to focus on issues like infrastructure and homelessness rather than such a divisive topic.

“There’s a process in place right now where we can write to the Alaska State School Board and express our ideas on the subject because it’s really complicated, and it’s divisive — we know that we know it’s divisive,” Koplin said. “… (The borough is) nonpartisan and by weighing in on the subject, which is heavily partisan on both sides — I don’t want this to be the borough’s business.”

Didi Peters, a graduate of Kenai Central High School, submitted written testimony asking assembly members to vote the resolution down. She challenged the assumption that trans girls would have a competitive advantage over cis girls, saying that “trans girls come in all sizes,” and questioned the ability of schools to accommodate the logistics of the proposed regulations.

“You’re entrusted with protecting all kids, including the LGBTQ ones,” Peters wrote. “Don’t make them doubt their value to our cities. Some people have a gender identity that defies existing classification, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be segregated.”

Dennis Murray, of Soldotna, asked assembly members to vote in favor of the resolution. The borough has a responsibility to its citizens, he said, to weigh in on matters of public policy, and the regulations being considered by the state board of education fall in that category.

“The resolution has several ‘whereas’ clauses that speak to what others have said tonight, that this is about fairness and safety,” Murray said. “I think that girls should have a chance to compete against girls and that biology is immutable. You’re either an XX or an XY and that should determine how you play sports in high school.”

Dave Carey, who sits on the Soldotna City Council and was a teacher and coach in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for 30 years, submitted written testimony asking assembly members to support the proposed regulation. Carey, who coached girls wrestling, said that female athletes overcame adversity when the sport was still co-educational.

“To allow, biologically born boys, to compete now and in the future in Alaska sports designated for ‘Girls’ would be a travesty and would greatly disrespect the effort, nobility and grace shown by girls all over this State,” Carey wrote. “As a former athlete and Kenai Peninsula Borough coach, I say, it must not be allowed as it is ‘fundamentally unbalanced, competitively unfair and unsafe.’”

Nattaphon “Ice” Wangyot, who in 2016 competed in an individual event at the Alaska State Track and Field Championships, is understood to be the first and only publicly transgender athlete to compete in high school sports at the championship level in Alaska.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in 2007 became the first state activities association to enact policies regarding the “equitable inclusion” of transgender K-12 students in sports and activities. In the 10 years after those policies were adopted, three known transgender student athletes competed in sports through the association.

A toolkit created in 2021 by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in partnership with Gender Diversity Founder Aidan Key outlines best practices when it comes to accommodating trans and nonbinary student athletes in high school athletics. WIAA’s policy says students will participate in programs that are consistent with their gender identity, or the gender most consistently expressed.

The toolkit, among other things, says best practices include allowing trans or nonbinary students to use the locker room or restroom that most closely aligns with their gender identity. Further, students should be referred to with the pronoun they request and schools should not ask for proof of a student’s gender.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education President Debbie Cary told assembly members Tuesday that the school board has not discussed the regulation being considered by the state board. She has concerns about the legality of the regulation, which she said is ultimately subject to review by the Alaska Department of Law, and said KPBSD is more focused on issues currently affecting peninsula students.

“Currently, KPBSD is prioritizing issues that are impacting our students today,” Cary said. “We’re talking about issues such as student learning loss, student mental wellness, staff retention, staff hiring, and — the big elephant in the room for us — education funding. Those are the things that we are focusing on as a board at the present time.”

The assembly ultimately voted 6-2 in favor of the resolution, with assembly members Lane Chesley and Cindy Ecklund voting in opposition. Assembly member Mike Tupper was absent.

In voting against the resolution, Chesley said the assembly should have worked more collaboratively with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to craft the resolution. Ecklund, who represents the eastern peninsula, said the logistics of having co-ed teams doesn’t always work for small schools.

Assembly President Brent Johnson, who ultimately voted in support of the resolution, gave testimony about his experiences being a parent to his daughter, who is trans. Although he understands a desire for fairness in sports, Johnson said concerns about the mental health of LGBTQ+ students, including high suicide rates, are very real. He said he’d like to see the same people that are passionate about trans students playing sports put the same energy into supporting students’ mental health.

“When you’re that different and you realize it, it’s a very hard thing to go through life,” Johnson said. “I think that every student and every child in our school system is valuable and so I want to make sure that we support them. I think that this resolution is probably going to send a message that’s going to be hard for some kids to receive.”

An online survey created by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization with a stated goal of ending suicide among LGBTQ+ young people, found that 45% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months. More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth reported seriously considering suicide in the last 12 months, compared to one in three cisgender youth. Nearly one in five transgender and nonbinary youth, who accounted for roughly half of all survey respondents, had attempted suicide.

The same survey, which analyzed responses from about 34,000 LGTBQ youth in the United States between the ages of 13 and 24, found that 83% of transgender and nonbinary youth said they worried about transgender people being denied the ability to play sports due to state or local laws. More than 90% said they worried about access to gender-affirming care and bathroom access for the same reasons.

Thirty-seven percent of transgender and nonbinary youth who took the survey said they have been physically threatened or harmed due to their gender identity, and more than 71% reported experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity.

In all, more 114,000 people from unique IP addresses began the survey, however results were not analyzed for respondents who, for one reason or another, did not qualify to complete the survey.

The Alaska Board of Education will accept public comments on the proposed regulation via email at deed.commissioner@alaska.gov until July 21 at 4:30 p.m. Members of the public may also testify on the issue during the board’s July 26 hearing.

More information about how to submit public comments to the state board of education on the proposed regulation can be found at education.alaska.gov/regs.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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