Amid the competition of high school sports, the overarching goal of the Iowa athletic organizations is to ensure all student-athletes feel accepted.
“The IHSAA and IGHSAU exist because we believe in the value of participation for all,” Berger said. “Sports have long served as a place to break down barriers and to create a place for students to belong.”
For many athletes, sports are a lifeline, providing some with a chance to escape and overcome hardships in their lives. However, exclusionary policies strip several transgender and non-binary youth of this opportunity.
“To think that the ability to play sports is just one other thing that you don’t have access to, because of your gender, is just really painful to think about,” Imborek said.
Alden doesn’t see why their gender identity should be more important than their passion for running and being on a team.
“I know why it might make other people uncomfortable, but then again, it’s running … I love it,” Alden said. “It’s something that’s worth interacting with people, so what about it if someone’s not cis?”
In a 2018 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, transgender and gender non-conforming students were significantly more likely to report poorer physical health and long-term mental health problems than cisgender youth. Across all gender identities, transgender males reported higher rates of depressive mood, having seriously considered suicide and attempted suicide than the youth of all other gender identities, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“We already know that trans and non-binary adolescents, in particular, have a lot of health disparities and have many instances where they don’t feel affirmed and where they might not have the same level of social connectedness that their peers do,” Imborek said.
According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, using the name and pronouns that align with an individual’s gender is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to support transgender and non-binary people. Doing so can promote a more gender-inclusive environment for all, whether in athletics or everyday life.
“We should figure out how we can make this opportunity [to participate in athletics] accessible for all students, not just students who exist on the binary,” Imborek said.
However, the question of whether to prioritize fairness or inclusivity in athletics has been an ongoing debate. While they try to see the current policies as comforting to those worried about preserving fairness in sports, Alden doesn’t agree with how transgender and non-binary athletes can easily be left out.
“I could understand this trying to make people less uncomfortable … but it shouldn’t be all upon me to make people feel less uncomfortable,” Alden said. “People always find reasons to exclude [others], and I’m tired of it.”
Although Berger acknowledges the importance of including transgender athletes, she also believes the struggles of female athletes should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, Berger thinks compromise should allow both female athletes and transgender athletes to participate in school sports.
“Girls and women in sport understand being excluded based on gender, so they do not wish to exclude transgender females,” Berger said. “Yet, their opportunities have been earned over time and should be preserved. We should be able to find a way to include transgender athletes in sport without all of the harmful rhetoric.”
At West High, Athletic Director Craig Huegel hopes transgender athletes will form close connections with their coaches and teammates and feel safe to identify as who they are.
“Sometimes we don’t necessarily know a student might be transgender. We may not be fully clued into what their [gender] is or what concerns they may have, so we try to do our best to … get to know them and make them comfortable,” Huegel said.
Huegel values the importance of welcoming all students to participate in athletics, regardless of their gender and other identity markers.
“If they’re willing to meet expectations in terms of being a good teammate, coming to practices [and] competing, we want those students here no matter what their gender is,” Huegel said. “I think a lot of it comes down to our students and our coaches. How they are going to treat and welcome and receive other students is a big part of those kids having a good experience.”
For Alden, the connections they have made playing school sports have made them feel they can be more themself, and recently coming out to a teammate has assuaged some of their fears of not feeling accepted. The teammate was proud of Alden and assured them the rest of the team would be as well.
“That just made me so happy [since] that is off my chest. I don’t have to worry about that as much,” Alden said. “It released an unbelievable amount of stress … I’m so unbelievably, unexplainably happy.”
Although coming out to their teammate made Alden more confident in themself, they see it as a move in the right direction rather than a destination. Alden encourages others that are unsure of whether to come out to be patient and understanding of themselves.
“[Coming out] is not the final solution,“ Alden said. “You should be allowed to be open, and you should be allowed to take your time to come out if you want [to].”
Above all, Alden believes identity should be a cause for celebration, not a reason for adversity. For them, coming out is a tool in discovering themself.
“It should matter that I’m trans, but it shouldn’t change your opinion of me. I want [my coming out] to be remembered, but I don’t want it to matter,” Alden said. “I want it to be something that matters because it was a stepping stone but doesn’t matter because you no longer need to step on it.”