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Behind the guidelines

February 25, 2021

Iowa is the only state in the U.S. that has separate high school athletic organizations for boys and girls. Although both have existed for nearly 100 years, the IHSAA and IGHSAU have not merged into a single organization. IHSAA Executive Director Tom Keating attributes this separation to the precedent of teams based on gender and consequent physical capabilities. 

“I think it’s historical, more than anything, and it was based on the perception that physical size, speed and strength were different enough that [athletics] should be separated,” Keating said. “I think those things still hold true today.”

Keating views the inclusion of transgender athletes as relatively new to Iowa high school sports, a factor that challenges preconceptions of why sports unions are divided in the first place. 

“That [division] made sense, until those who were identifying different than their birth gender wanted to participate in athletics,” Keating said. “I think the reason [the organizations] have not come together yet is because of that remaining, lingering perception of a difference of size, speed, strength in the athletic arena.”

According to Keating, the organizations have not found a compelling enough argument to unite as one.

“There are occasionally questions posed or suggestions made that our two organizations get together and try to work as one, as is the case in the other 49 states, but so far, both have been separate because the boards of each organization have not seen the overall benefit of bringing those two organizations together,” Keating said.

Jean Berger, executive director of the IGHSAU, sees the separation of the two athletic organizations as a structural decision rather than one based on gender.

“I don’t view the two organizations as being divided by gender as much as structured for specific purposes, philosophy and focus,” Berger said. “That kind of separate governance allows each organization the ability to more effectively utilize its resources to shape the experiences of the students they serve.”

In Iowa, each school district locally addresses transgender students’ desires to participate in sports. According to Berger, the athletic organizations instruct each district to determine athletic eligibility before allowing students to compete.  

I don’t view the two organizations as being divided by gender as much as structured for specific purposes, philosophy and focus.”

— Jean Berger, IGHSAU Executive Director

Dr. Katie Imborek, co-director of the University of Iowa Health Care LGBTQ clinic, believes the inclusion of non-cisgender athletes calls the division of sports teams by boys and girls into question.

“When we have people who are non-binary or trans, it pushes back against whether we’re doing this for a certain purpose [and] whether there is a real value to it,” Imborek said. 

Alden also believes the gender division in sports can be problematic when considering transgender athletes. They see the transgender policies set by the athletic associations as measures to limit transgender athletes’ success in sports.

“It’s not fair because we don’t make Michael Phelps cut off part of his feet because they’re longer than average because they’re too big of an advantage,” Alden said. “[We choose to] separate sports … despite it not being even biological [in] a single way.” 

Even outside the sports realm, the gender binary is prevalent in everyday life, from occupational titles and pronouns to gender roles. Imborek sees both sides of the argument: preserving conventionality or questioning it. She believes physical differences between those assigned male or female at birth complicate matters, but doesn’t think transgender athletes should be excluded from sports.

“The reality is that [biologically female] bodies are very different than a lot of men’s bodies,” Imborek said. “Should we exclude them? No, I don’t think that we should.” 

According to Imborek, testosterone has a significant impact on athletic performance and is the biggest factor of the gender division in athletics, as it can increase an individual’s muscle mass growth and endurance.

“Does it make sense to let someone who is taking testosterone and identifies as trans masculine play on a girls team?” Imborek said. “I don’t think it does [because] from a fairness standpoint, in terms of competition, that testosterone is really what you should be thinking about.”

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