Louisiana High School Athletic Association removed transgender boy from cross country team in 2019

High school sports rules effectively ban transgender students, advocates say

By: - May 21, 2021 7:00 am
Ashton's cross country team jersey

This is the former cross country jersey of Ashton. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association removed Ashton from the Mandeville High School boys cross country team after discovering he was transgender. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

In 2019, Ashton was hoping to join the military after graduating from Mandeville High School. 

So as a senior, he joined the boys cross country team to get himself into better shape. He started attending summer running practices ahead of the fall season. Ashton wasn’t very fast, but he appreciated the team’s camaraderie and it helped him get fit.

“I loved it,” he said in testimony prepared for lawmakers last year. “If I could do it all over again, I would have joined the cross country team my freshman year.”

But Ashton didn’t get to finish out the 2019 boys cross country season. That fall, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association told Ashton, who is transgender, that he would have to join the girls roster if he wanted to compete in cross country meets. He had been practicing with the boys team for several weeks with no complaint when that decision came down.

People in Ashton’s life stopped calling him a girl years ago. He came out to his parents as transgender at age 11. He has been dressing in masculine clothing and using he and him as pronouns since he moved from Lafayette to Mandeville before the seventh grade. Ashton started taking testosterone at age 14. He had surgery to remove breast tissue from his chest at 15. Before that surgery, he wore a binder to flatten his chest. 

Only a handful of people in his entire high school even knew Ashton was transgender. He did not want to run on the girls cross country team.

“I never came out as transgender to my peers at school because I’ve never needed to do that,” said Ashton, who declined to use his last name in this story. 

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association knows of only one transgender student, Ashton, who has tried to join one of its high school sports teams, said the organization’s executive director Eddie Bonine. 

Transgender athletes have not been prevalent in high school sports, but that hasn’t stopped Louisiana lawmakers from pushing to restrict transgender sports participation this year. 

A bill that would prohibit transgender women and girls from partaking in women and girls sports is quickly working its way through the Louisiana Legislature. Similar legislation has passed in other conservative states around the country, including Montana and Tennessee, in recent months. 

Two Republican women lawmakers filed the legislation in Louisiana. Both of those women couldn’t identify any transgender women or girls who tried to participate Louisiana sports competitions in the state. They are pushing the bill because they are concerned about what might happen in the future to women and girls’ sports, they said.  

The bill’s backers argue transgender women and girls have an unfair advantage over cisgender women and girls in sports. The proponents believe transgender women and girls are stronger, faster and bigger, even if they are receiving medical treatment to block masculine hormones. 

The legislation runs counter to the transgender athlete policies adopted by both the NCAA and International Olympic Committee. Both organizations let transgender women compete in competitions as long as they have been taking medication to suppress testosterone. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to be the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics this summer.

Louisiana Trans Advocates and other opponents characterize the bill as discriminatory. Gov. John Bel Edwards believes it is unfair and unnecessary — and has said he will veto the bill if it makes it to his desk. 

Trans Pride flags | Ted Eytan via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The bill doesn’t appear to have much bearing on Ashton’s case, the one known dispute involving a transgender athlete in Louisiana. 

Ashton was assigned female at birth. Using the arguments made by proponents of the ban on transgender women and girls in sports, Ashton should have posed no threat to cisgender boys in his cross country competitions because he is assumed to not be as strong as them. 

Ashton was removed from the Mandeville boys cross country team because he ran afoul of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s guidelines on transgender athletes, which apply to both girls and boys. Those guidelines are far stricter than those offered by the NCAA or International Olympic Committee.

The high school athletic association requires students to compete in boys or girls sports based on the sex listed on their birth certificate unless they have “undergone sex reassignment.” This transition-related care must include “external genitalia changes and a gonadectomy,” and must occur at least two years before the student wants to compete in sports.

Louisiana Trans Advocates characterize these guidelines as an “effective ban” on transgender athletes in high school sports. The Endocrine Society recommends that clinicians delay gender-affirming surgery for genitalia and gonad removal until the person  is 18.  Doctors are almost never willing to perform surgery on genitalia as part of gender-affirming care of transgender children and teenagers.

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association only flagged Ashton after he turned in his birth certificate, which describes him as female, to join the cross country team. If his teammates were aware that he was transgender, they never complained about it, a source close to the Mandeveille boys cross country team said. 

In fact, Mandeville High School appealed Ashton’s disqualification and helped him submit a “hardship application” to try to keep him on the boys team. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association went against the school’s wishes and rejected that request, according to Ashton and a source close to the cross country team. Despite being on testosterone for years and having surgery on his chest, Ashton didn’t meet the association’s threshold, Bonine said.

“At the end of the day, there’s a girls cross country team and a boys cross country team,” Bonine said in an interview. Ashton should have participated on the girls cross country team, Bonine said. 

Mandeville High School principal Bruce Bundy did not return a phone call and email message  seeking comment on Ashton’s case. 

As a School System, we must follow LHSAA’s policies and decisions,” wrote Meredith Mendez, a spokeswoman for the St. Tammany Parish Public School System, in response to questions directed to Bundy about Ashton’s case.  

Initially, the Mandeville cross country team found a workaround to the athletic association’s decision. For a short time, the team ran Ashton in mixed-gender junior varsity races, where girls and boys run together. This required Ashton to technically be listed on the girls roster, though that list was kept private, according to a source close to the team. 

Ashton continued to practice with the boys team during this time, even if he was technically listed on the girls’ roster for races, the source said. The source does not want to be identified because talking to a reporter could have a negative impact on the person’s job. 

“As far as [the team] was concerned, and Ash was concerned, he was on the boys team and the boys roster,” the source said. “I would say that no one on the team realized his situation.”

The solution was temporary. Later in the season, the cross country team only participated in meets where girls and boys ran in separate races. At that point, Ashton left the cross country team because he wasn’t willing to run in girls-only races. He didn’t share what he was going through with the other boys on the team, though. He told them he was dropping out of cross country so he could join wrestling. 

Louisiana Trans Advocates offered to support Ashton in a lawsuit against the Louisiana High School Athletic Association over his exclusion from boys cross country. The advocacy organization believes the athletic association’s policy might not be legal, since transgender students cannot reasonably comply with the guidelines. 

“Our position on the policy is that it is unfair or illegal under the law,” said Dylan Waguespack, president of Louisiana Trans Advocates. “There has to be a policy that can set a standard that someone can meet.”

Ashton wasn’t interested in a lawsuit. He didn’t want to go public at his high school about being transgender.

“The moment people find out you’re trans, they treat you different,” Ashton said in an interview this month.

Ashton joined the wrestling team for a few weeks, but hated it. Unlike cross country, there is no girls’ wrestling program, so Louisiana High School Athletic Association rules allow people of all genders to participate on the boys’ team. This is true of all sports that don’t have separate boys and girls high school teams in Louisiana. It’s also why girls are able to join high school football teams.  

Not only was he able to join the boys wrestling team, but Ashton had also played on Mandeville’s junior varsity boys lacrosse team before he joined cross country. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association guidelines regarding transgender athletes don’t apply to lacrosse because it is a club sport. 

In fact, of the three boys sports teams Ashton joined at Mandeville High School, cross country was the only one where he was prohibited from participating — but it was also his favorite.

Even after leaving the team early, Ashton still attended the cross country team banquet at the end of the year, and the team still gave him a senior plaque. A source close to the team said, given the circumstances, the coach didn’t want to treat Ashton as if he had quit the team early. 

When asked why Ashton couldn’t compete on the boys cross country team, especially when Ashton had been on other boys teams, Bonine said it is best for “biological females” — the phrase he used to describe transgender boys — to compete on teams with girls. He said in 30 years of helping to run sports leagues, he hasn’t seen a girl who can compete with boys at the high school level. 

“We’ve had girls attempt to play football, but they weren’t competitive,” Bonine said. 

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association is in favor of the legislation that would ban transgender women and girls from women and girls’ sports. 

Even with the association’s strict transgender policy, Bonine said he fears that “biological boys” — the phrase he used to describe transgender girls — will try to participate on girls volleyball teams. Since the athletic association doesn’t have a boys volleyball program, Bonine said he would have a difficult time denying a boy or transgender girl a spot on a volleyball team under the organization’s current guidelines. 

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association welcoming the lawmakers’ proposed transgender sports ban is odd, given that the association has sued the state over passing laws to regulate high school sports previously

The Supreme Court of Louisiana sided with the athletic association in 2013 and voided laws passed by state lawmakers that wanted to force the organization to change eligibility requirements for high school sports. The court found the laws were unconstitutional because the association is a private entity that shouldn’t be subjected to government overreach. 

In Ashton’s case, he would have already had the surgery required by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association to participate in boys sports if he could have.

Having just finished his freshman year at LSU, Ashton has been researching his options for such surgeries. They aren’t covered by insurance in Louisiana, and the out-of-pocket costs for those procedures are financially out of Ashton’s reach at the moment. The surgery can cost as much $100,000, he said. 

It’s also not clear whether Ashton would have run into opposition from the Louisiana High School Athletic Association if he had chosen to publicly join the girls cross country team. The association prohibits athletes from taking “performance enhancing drugs.”

Bonine said in an interview last month that the banned substances could include testosterone, which Ashton and other transgender boys take. Louisiana Trans Advocates said they would likely fight any effort to exclude transgender students who use testosterone, by arguing the drug is medically necessary for the students.

Ashton said, without hesitation, that he would have tried to kill himself in high school if he had not been able to start on testosterone. He said all of his gender-affirming care is and was essential.  

“If my medical care didn’t happen when I got it, I would have ended up in a psych ward,” he said.  

Ashton was angry when he was kicked off the boys cross country team, but it wasn’t the only disappointment he experienced  as a transgender high school student. He had been involved with Mandeville’s ROTC program and started the process of applying to the U.S. Naval Academy with the support of his high school ROTC instructor, Ashton said.

He went through a Naval Academy alumnus interview, but then former President Donald Trump implemented a ban on transgender people already receiving gender-affirming medical treatment from joining the military.  Ashton was a high school junior at the time, and ended up pulling out of the Naval Academy application process. He assumed serving in the military might no longer be an option for him. He also dropped out of Mandeville’s ROTC program because he no longer saw the point of participating.

President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s policy on transgender people in the military, but the federal government’s flip flopping soured Ashton on military service. Instead, he’s enrolled in biological engineering at LSU and plans to apply to medical school.

He wants to leave Louisiana when he finishes college. He wants to live in a state where insurance companies are required to cover gender-affirming medical treatment, such as the surgeries he is seeking.

“Maybe that’s what Louisiana wants. They want us all to leave,” he said. “They want us all to die off.” 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.