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Should Transgender Students Be Allowed To Compete In Women's Athletics?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Should transgender students be allowed to compete in women's high school athletics? That's the question at the center of a lawsuit in Connecticut. In some states, inclusion means that if someone identifies as a girl, she can compete as a girl. Not everyone, though, thinks that's fair play. Connecticut Public Radio's Frankie Graziano reports.

FRANKIE GRAZIANO, BYLINE: Terry Miller is fast, so fast that some girls don't want to race against her. Last year, she clocked the best time a girl has ever run in the 55-meter dash at the Connecticut open indoor track and field championships. But this year - well, it's complicated.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: On your marks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

GRAZIANO: Miller, who is transgender, finished third.

TERRY MILLER: My whole season wasn't close to any of my personal bests, but I was still trying to work my way to how I was because stuff happened, and I'm not in my groove like I was last year. So I just kept pushing.

GRAZIANO: She was running right next to someone that's suing state athletic officials so that Miller can't race against girls anymore. Her name is Chelsea Mitchell, and she won the race even though her lawsuit claims the playing field is uneven.

CHELSEA MITCHELL: I was just trying to focus on getting a good start, getting a clean start, work on my acceleration, finish.

GRAZIANO: In Connecticut, the state governing association of high school sports allows athletes to compete according to the gender they identify with. Mitchell's attorneys say that policy is unfair. Denise Harle says Miller has an edge because she's, quote, "biologically male."

DENISE HARLE: The whole reason we have girls sports is because biological males have larger muscles, greater bone density, bigger hearts and lungs. Their size and strength gives them a significant advantage over girls.

GRAZIANO: Back at the state open, the debate falls somewhere along the intersection of fairness and transgender participation in athletics. Phil Hutchens doesn't have a child running in the 55. He's here to watch his son compete in a different event. But he calls the lawsuit appropriate.

PHIL HUTCHENS: Girls are girls; boys are boys. If you want to run, that's fine, but you have to have an asterisk by your name that you're declaring definitely.

GRAZIANO: Omar Brown coaches track kids from a school not associated with the lawsuit.

OMAR BROWN: What I tell my athletes all the time is just, like, you know, focus on your race. Focus on you. At the end of the day, be respectful of other people.

GRAZIANO: The attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the athlete say Title IX forms the basis of their case. That's the landmark federal law that initially gave female athletes the same opportunity to compete that males already had. Ann Skeet works with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She says Title IX can actually be applied to both sides of this issue.

ANN SKEET: I think Title IX was originally about fair and equal treatment, and so the transgender students have a claim to fair and equal treatment as well.

GRAZIANO: Skeet says as people develop a better understanding of the experience of the transgender student, society will catch up. The Connecticut entity being sued says its policy on transgender athletes is appropriate under federal Title IX regulations. Two percent of American high-schoolers identify as transgender, including Terry Miller. While she says the lawsuit has affected her performance on the track, she's grateful she lives in a state that lets her run with other girls. In Idaho, for example, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would bar transgender females, athletes like Miller, from competing in girls sports.

MILLER: There are people who may not agree with me, but there are people who do, and they're very supportive from other teams. So it helps.

GRAZIANO: For now, as the legal case continues, these sprinters will likely meet again. The next state competition is a few months away.

For NPR News, I'm Frankie Graziano in Hartford, Conn.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LAGUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.