Transgender athlete heartbroken about recent GHSA ruling

Nikole Glaug is a lifelong athlete, participating in everything from soccer to volleyball to bike riding. She was recruited to play collegiate soccer in her native Ohio but instead moved to Florida, where her athletic goals were paused. She now lives in Atlanta and understands the pain associated with a recent ruling by the Georgia High School Association that effectively bans transgender athletes from competing based on gender identification.

Credit: Photo courtesty of Nikole Glaug

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Nikole Glaug is a lifelong athlete, participating in everything from soccer to volleyball to bike riding. She was recruited to play collegiate soccer in her native Ohio but instead moved to Florida, where her athletic goals were paused. She now lives in Atlanta and understands the pain associated with a recent ruling by the Georgia High School Association that effectively bans transgender athletes from competing based on gender identification.

Credit: Photo courtesty of Nikole Glaug

Nikole Glaug understands how heartbreaking it can be for young transgender athletes in Georgia.

Glaug is a lifelong athlete, participating in everything from soccer to volleyball to biking. She was recruited to play collegiate soccer in her native Ohio but instead moved to Florida, where her athletic goals were paused. She now lives in Atlanta and understands the pain associated with a recent ruling by the Georgia High School Association that effectively bans transgender athletes from competing based on gender identification.

Glaug, who underwent a medical transition to female, still plays kickball, though at 39, “with my athletic days waning,” she’s turned her attention more to advocating for transgender youth to have the same opportunities she has had. As such, Glaug was disappointed to see the GHSA’s recent decision to require athletes to compete based on the gender designation on their birth certificate.

“It’s got to be heartbreaking to a trans youth who, I mean, we’re not talking about someone who’s trying to compete for big-money contracts or for Olympic gold medals,” Glaug said. “We’re talking about grade school, middle school, high school children who I just want to play with their peers. And because the athletic board body decided that they’re going to take a stand, this is the policy they want to enforce. It’s alienating such a small percentage of the population, it almost feels like targeting.

“So my heart goes out to them, to all the trans youth that are out there. I would just want to tell them that people are fighting for you. Don’t give up hope. Don’t lose your shine. Don’t diminish yourself.”

The GHSA executive committee voted 61-0-1 on May 4 in favor of a ruling that required participation based on gender identification at birth. A week earlier, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law House Bill 1084, which among its purposes allowed a GHSA committee to determine whether transgender students may compete in athletics based on gender identity. It was previously left to the individual school’s discretion since 2017, and most required athletes to compete based on birth certificate gender.

Kemp tweeted May 4 that the bill will “protect fairness in school sports … I’m proud to have championed this effort in Georgia!” Democrats and Human Rights Campaign, among other organizations, have criticized the bill as discriminatory.

Members of the GHSA executive committee declined to comment after the vote.

“We’re approaching this as a competitive-balance issue,” GHSA executive director Robin Hines told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the day before the vote. “We don’t want to discriminate against anybody, but that includes biological girls. There are competitive imbalances generally between biological females and biological males.”

Glaug has lived in the Atlanta area for five years, working as a compliance and risk analyst for an auditing company. After college, Glaug discovered a love for kickball, which she played on local recreational leagues and eventually in a nationwide competitive league. Her teams won five national titles, amassing what she estimated was around $70,000 in earnings across 16 years.

She said she wasn’t surprised at the GHSA’s decision, but the voting margin – 61-0-1 – was “daunting” and a reminder of the difficult circumstances facing transgender youth, especially in the South.

She also noted the GHSA did not report any data regarding the claim that transgender athletes threaten competitive balance in sports.

“I thought we’d have a couple more allies who would have done a little bit more research,” she said. “Who would have looked into some of the stuff that’s put out there, that highlights the true effect of what hormone-replacement therapy will do for a trans individual, and the leveling of the playing field that it actually does. So it was daunting, but I kind of expected it.

“I hate to say it, but I know we are in the South and opinions are swayed a lot slower down here, so that doesn’t mean that they can’t be changed or can’t be swayed or that anyone is a bad person for having their opinions. This means that we need to do a lot more work to educate.”

Glaug anticipates some sort of injunction, hoping the court looks further into the issue and examines what the International Olympic Committee, and other organizations, have done to incorporate transgender athletes. In November, the IOC established new guidelines for transgender athletes to compete, months after the first transgender athletes competed for the first time at the Tokyo Olympics.

The IOC said its new framework “recognizes both the need to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their gender identity or sex variations, can practice sport in a safe, harassment-free environment that athletes at elite level – to participate in fair competitions where no participant has an unfair and disproportionate advantage over the rest.”

The framework, found in a six-page document, contains 10 principles that were “drafted with the specific needs of high-level organized sports competitions in mind, the general principles of inclusion and non-discrimination reflected below should be promoted and defended at all levels of the sport.”

Those principles address: Inclusion, Prevention of Harm, Non-Discrimination, Fairness, No Presumption of Advantage, Evidence-Based Approach, Primacy of Health and Bodily Autonomy, Stakeholder-Centered Approach, Right to Privacy, Periodic Reviews.

“This isn’t new; transgender athletes didn’t just come around the last five years,” Glaug said. “We’ve been here a long, long time. … If we can allow these kids to just play some sports with their friends, gain a little confidence, learn how to interact with the team, interact with other people, that’s nothing but positive things for them and for the community.”

Georgia is one of multiple states to recently require transgender students compete based on their gender listed at birth. Oklahoma, Arizona, South Carolina and Tennessee are among other states to institute similar policies in the past few months.

The GHSA, established in 1908, contains 64 regions and over 465 public and private high schools. Its objective, per its website, is the “promotion of education in Georgia from a mental, physical, and moral viewpoint, to standardize and encourage participation in athletics, and to promote sportsmanship and an appreciation for and study of music, speech and other fine arts through region and state competitions.”

The debate goes well beyond high school athletics.

In March, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, won a national title at the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships held at Georgia Tech. Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle for the distinction of the first transgender athlete to win a national championship. Thomas also tied for fifth in the 200-yard freestyle and eighth in the 100-yard freestyle.

Thomas did not speak to reporters during the championships. She did a recent interview with ABC News and ESPN.

“The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned,” Thomas said. “People will say, ‘Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win.’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”

Former tennis star Martina Navratilova wrote an op-ed in the Sunday Times in 2019 detailing why she believes competing against transgender athletes is unfair.

“It’s insane and it’s cheating,” Navratilova wrote. “I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.”