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Trans Student-Athletes, Under Siege, Stand Tall at Athlete Ally Awards

Youth track stars, pro soccer players honored at sports nonprofit’s annual event

Connecticut high school track stars Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood smile as they are honored on stage at Athlete Ally’s annual awards event in Manhattan on November 12.
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There were perfectly good reasons why a pair of trans student-athletes honored at Athlete Ally’s annual awards night on November 12 were described throughout the evening as “courageous” and “fearless.”

Connecticut high school track stars Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller — who were recognized alongside out gay Major League Soccer player Collin Martin and out lesbian World Cup soccer champions Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris — have been targeted by the right’s latest wave of attacks on transgender, non-binary, and intersex student-athletes, but they have not been fazed — they’ve been emboldened.

The pair have been outspoken in response to legal challenges, lodged by cisgender student-athletes backed by the anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), against a Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) policy that allows student-athletes to participate in sports in accordance with their gender identity. The complainants in that case previously lost competitions to Yearwood and Miller and claim the trans athletes had an unfair advantage over them and that the cisgender youth were therefore victims of discrimination.

The Trump administration couldn’t resist jumping into the mix, either: The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the complaint.

In June, Miller and Yearwood issued a response to that complaint through the American Civil Liberties Union in which they recounted the discrimination they have faced as black trans girls in the athletic realm and stressed the importance of speaking up for their right to compete when others have told them to stay quiet. At the awards ceremony held at New World Stages in Hell’s Kitchen, they continued to explain why they would not be silenced.

“I want everyone to be comfortable being themselves,” Miller told Gay City News. “Don’t be scared to participate in sports, because we have rights, too.”

These kinds of attacks have not just been limited to high schools in Connecticut. The issue is a part of a broader, concerted effort by conservatives — including, increasingly, Donald Trump, Jr., for whom it’s become something of a leisure-time obsession — to undermine the rights of trans athletes to participate in sports. High-profile sports figures like Caster Semenya of South Africa, who is also black, have fallen victim to years of abuse — for what she has consistently said is merely a naturally occurring high testosterone level — but efforts to kick her off the playing field have escalated as of late. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced new rules last year requiring women athletes with high levels of testosterone to use medication to reduce their levels — and it specifically implemented those rules in the kinds of races Semenya participates in. Semenya has fought those regulations in ongoing court battles that have thrown her professional future in the jeopardy.

“It’s tricky because the global sporting system is interconne­cted,” said Hudson Taylor, a straight ally who has long led trainings on inclusivity in his role as the founder and executive director of Athlete Ally. “The athlete who is competing on a local level in Connecticut might be impacted by a policy implemented by the International Olympic Committee. The policies really come through and across all those boundaries in ways that could either be an opportunity or a major obstacle.”

Those sobering realities underscored Athlete Ally’s decision to include Miller and Yearwood among their honorees this year. Taylor pointed to testimony during congressional hearings for the federal Equality Act earlier this year as prime examples of the ways in which conservatives have weaponized trans athletes in their arguments against providing full LGBTQ equality.

LGBTQ leaders at Athlete Ally’s star-studded awards ceremony were just as impressed with Miller and Yearwood. Rick Welts, the out gay president of the Golden State Warriors who became the highest-ranking sports executive to come out when he spoke to Dan Barry at The New York Times in 2011, sat in the Green Room ahead of the event and appeared to be in awe of the duo.

“The two transgender student-athletes we’re honoring tonight are literally writing history every day of their lives,” he said. “They’re doing it in a fearless way, not exactly knowing what the end of the story is going to be.”

Welts, a co-chair of the event, has remained active on behalf of Athlete Ally, traveling around the nation speaking about his own experience as an out gay man in sports. His own coming out experience has given him greater appreciation for others who are continuing to pave their own paths in an industry that has long been hostile for LGBTQ folks, as evidenced by the profound lack of male professional athletes in major professional leagues. He touched upon other honorees of the night like Martin, who in 2018 became the only out gay and active MLS player, as well as Krieger and Harris, who are engaged to be married and fresh off a world championship.

“We’re celebrating an out male professional athlete, which is very hard to come by in our society,” Welts said. “We’re celebrating two women who are champions in the greatest competition of the world.”

As for Miller and Yearwood, their journey is only just beginning — and they are cognizant of the questions that legal and cultural battles pose for the future of trans athletes, especially black trans women. But they are nonetheless brimming with self-confidence as they prepare to enter the next chapter of their lives. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t shying away from ambitious aspirations, even in the face of adversity.

“I’m going to college,” Miller said minutes before she stepped on stage to be honored. Then, with a bright smile, she concluded, “But it would be nice to be a professional athlete. That’s the goal.”

Updated 3:37 pm, November 14, 2019
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