Young transgender athletes caught in middle of states' debates

Cross country was the obvious choice for Becky Pepper-Jackson when she entered sixth grade this fall and got to try out for her first school sports team. Raymond Thompson Jr.

BECKY PEPPER-JACKSON slides her toes into her running shoes as the sun sets behind the Appalachian Mountains. She likes to run at the end of the day, when the summer heat has broken and she's done with her chores. The 11-year-old and her family live on three acres of land outside Bridgeport, West Virginia, a town with fewer than 10,000 people about halfway between Charleston, the state's capital, and Pittsburgh.

Every morning, Becky has to let the chickens out and fill up the water bucket. "Which half the time ends in a hose fight, by the way," Becky's mother, Heather, says.

On this particular July evening, Becky climbs into the family car with her mom, her dad and an older brother to drive to their favorite running spot. The road they live on is too busy, so they drive to a cross street where the cows far outnumber the cars.

"The cars that do come, they can see you from a mile away," Heather says. "Literally."

Becky has been logging miles with her mom since Heather pushed her around in a stroller. Now they run a mile through the rolling hills most every evening. Sometimes when they run, they also count. Math is Becky's favorite subject, so Heather incorporates it where she can. "We do counts while we're running," Heather says. Sometimes they count the number of breaths between foot falls. And then to make it interesting, Heather turns it into a story problem. "Like if we take 47 more steps, how many breaths do we need to take in order to stay on our program?"

All of this running has put Becky in position to make the cross country team at her middle school. As a sixth-grader, this is her first chance to run competitively for her school. "It's the first chance to do any organized sports other than cheer," Heather says.

Cross country was the obvious choice. "The reason why I love it so much is because my whole family has always done it," Becky says.

But the path for Becky to run competitively was almost blocked in the spring of 2021 when West Virginia passed HB 3293 -- a law that prevents transgender girls from competing in girls' and women's sports.

West Virginia is one of seven states that, during the 2021 legislative session, passed a law that restricts transgender athletes' access to sports; nearly three dozen states in all introduced bills seeking to do the same. As a new school year begins and youth sports regain a foothold after pandemic precautions, transgender kids in the United States are stuck in the middle of the ongoing and often ugly battle over science and assumption, sex and gender identity, politics and policy. Stephanie is a 9-year-old soccer player. Kris Wilka is a 13-year-old football player. They're not Olympians or NCAA stars. They're not even high school students. They are kids who just want to play.

"Becky is just like every other 11-year-old girl," Heather says. "Transgender people are just like everybody else. They're all normal."

So, Heather sued.

Policies all over the map

TITLE IX BARS discrimination "on the basis of sex" in educational programs receiving federal funds, including athletics, and it is at the heart of this debate. The interpretation of how Title IX either applies, or doesn't, to transgender athletes' participation in sports has been the focus of a partisan tug-of-war during the past three presidential administrations.

When the Obama administration issued formal guidance in the spring of 2016 through the departments of Justice and Education that mandated transgender inclusion in schools, 23 states sued. And when the Trump administration took over in 2017, that guidance was formally rescinded and the lawsuits were dropped.

As the Biden administration has made its picks for leadership in the Department of Education, inclusion of transgender students has been front and center. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has made the federal position clear. "Transgender athletes are students first and foremost, and they deserve every right that every other student gets," he said in an interview with ESPN's Paula Lavigne in June. "That means access to extracurricular activities, be it theater, sports. It doesn't matter."

Without formal federal policy, opportunities for children like Becky Pepper-Jackson are often determined by where they live. While nine states have laws that restrict transgender athletes' participation, athletic eligibility for transgender youth typically is determined by the policy of each state's high school association, creating patchwork policies across the country. Not to mention confusion.

"They're trying to put legislative momentum behind a problem that really doesn't exist." Karissa Niehoff

In Connecticut, for example, transgender students may compete in accordance with their gender identity without requiring medical steps. In Kentucky, transgender students may compete in accordance with their gender identity if they never went through puberty associated with their sex assigned at birth -- commonly referred to as endogenous puberty. If they started puberty, they need to have been on hormone therapy for "a sufficient length of time" and have undergone surgery. Otherwise, their birth certificate determines in which category they can participate.

Most of the state associations fall somewhere in between, employing committees to review documentation, or having different rules for transgender boys and transgender girls -- not addressing the fact that some students are nonbinary or more fluid with their gender identities. Iowa has two associations -- one for boys and one for girls. In the boys association, transgender boys may participate without restriction. The girls association suggests inclusion for transgender girls, but ultimately each school makes a determination.

Sometimes the state associations sit on the sideline. In Georgia, the school decides who can participate where, so if a school says a transgender athlete can play in a category consistent with their gender identity, the association says it would allow that to happen. In Alaska, policies are set at the school level as well, but if a school has no policy, then a student's birth certificate is used.

But what was once the domain of the state associations has been making its way to statehouses.

In addition to West Virginia, lawmakers in Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and Montana enacted laws restricting transgender athletes in 2021. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed two executive orders containing similar restrictions for transgender girls in sports at the scholastic and collegiate levels. Those eight states joined Idaho, which was the first state to pass such a law in 2020.

Idaho's law hasn't yet gone into effect because a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction on Aug. 17, 2020. Becky and Heather also won a preliminary injunction in West Virginia that allowed Becky to try out for her school's cross country team this fall.

In West Virginia, Judge Joseph Goodwin pointed to the likelihood of Pepper-Jackson and her lawyers' eventual success in arguing that HB 3293 is unconstitutional and violates her rights under Title IX.

"At this point, I have been provided with scant evidence that this law addresses any problem at all, let alone an important problem," Goodwin wrote in the ruling.

Which raises the question, why are so many of these bills being filed, and, in some cases, becoming law?

The origin story

WHEN THE REFEREE raised Mack Beggs' right arm in 2017 to signify the new Texas girls' state wrestling champion, eyebrows raised across the country. Beggs, a transgender boy, was unable to compete in the boys division under Texas policy.

Then, transgender sprinters Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood finished first and second in Connecticut's 2018 outdoor and 2019 indoor girls' state track championships.

Next came a Title IX complaint and a lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of a handful of cisgender girls in Connecticut. While these teenagers were far from the first transgender athletes to participate in sports -- Renée Richards successfully sued the United States Tennis Association to earn the right to play in the US Open in 1977 and Kye Allums became the first openly transgender person to participate in NCAA Division I athletics in 2010 -- their successes drew national attention to transgender athletes' participation at the youth level.

Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt was watching. The former women's basketball coach at Cal State Fullerton was concerned that the inclusion of transgender athletes in girls' and women's sports was unfair, so she decided to pursue legislation in Idaho. She reached out to ADF for guidance as she worked on the bill. "[ADF] had no legislation," Ehardt says. "This all started with me."

HB500 was introduced in Idaho on Feb. 13, 2020, the day after ADF announced a federal lawsuit against the Connecticut high school association on the steps of the state's capitol.

In the 18 months since, bills with names like "Fairness in Women's Sports" and "Save Women's Sports" have popped up across the country.

"What these do is it makes sure that when it comes to the women's category in particular, that it's reserved for biological females while still enabling any student to participate on the men's division and category," says Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the ADF, an organization whose stated mission is to protect religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights and the sanctity of life.

ADF, which is categorized as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, provided guidance on many of the bills filed in 2021. "I don't know that we were involved in all of them, but I know several of those we had been consulted on and reached out to by the sponsor asking for our expertise and legal expertise and guidance," Sharp says.

But Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), isn't clear on what all the fuss is about.

"They're trying to put legislative momentum behind a problem that really doesn't exist," Niehoff says.

This year, NFHS conducted an informal survey to see how many transgender athletes were competing across the country. "It was very, very few," she says.

There is no data available that provides an exact number of transgender students in high school, let alone transgender student-athletes. There are approximately 15 million high school students in the United States, and approximately 8 million of them participate in high school sports. A CDC study published in 2019 estimated that 1.8 percent of high school students are transgender, meaning there are roughly 270,000 transgender students in U.S. high schools. But a report by the Human Rights Campaign found that only 14% of transgender boys and 12% of transgender girls play sports. Given all of those numbers, it's statistically possible that there are some 35,000 transgender student-athletes in high school, which would mean 0.44% of high school athletes are transgender.

Even as a fraction of the athlete population, that's still considerably more transgender young people playing sports than have made headlines. That's because the overwhelming majority of them don't win championships. Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) executive director Glenn Lungarini saw that phenomenon up close in his conversations with parents in the state.

"What was very telling for me was a comment by the parents who said, 'We know that there's other transgender girls running, but we don't care about them because they're not winning,'" Lungarini says.

The Associated Press asked lawmakers who sponsored legislation focusing on transgender athletes for local examples, and they were unable to do so. That could be because no transgender athletes were competing in their states, but it's also plausible that the athletes who were playing sports did so without incident, just like most of their peers.

Some lawmakers, though, did cite the Connecticut case. And in debate after debate on this legislation, Connecticut is named as the reason for needing these bills.

"But in Connecticut, what is perceived to be transgender female domination was not," Lungarini says.

Lungarini analyzed the track performance of transgender girls in Connecticut compared to cisgender boys and cisgender girls for his doctoral research. According to his findings, Miller and Yearwood took first or second place 35% of the time in state championship-level races.

"The perception that transgender females dominate the sprinting landscape of indoor and outdoor track in Connecticut is grossly misrepresented," Lungarini says. "And that's also true, in my opinion, throughout the country."

So what's perception and what's real? Not even science has the answers to that question.

What does science say?

DETERMINING A DEFINITIVE scientific position on transgender athletes is difficult. At the core of the issue is what determines sex in the first place. And when.

In court filings, ADF defines boys as "those born with XY chromosomes" and girls as "those born with XX chromosomes," indicating a viewpoint that sex is, in fact, unchangeable.

When asked if ADF's stance is that chromosomes dictate gender, Sharp says, "I wouldn't necessarily say ADF's belief. I think it's more of a scientific truth that when it comes to a person's biological sex, it's written into every cell of their body and it is something that is fixed and unchangeable in that regard in terms of the XX, XY chromosomes and things like that."

While it is true that chromosomes are fixed, they aren't the only things that determine sex, says pediatric endocrinologist Susan Boulware.

"What determines biological sex is really a combination of appearance of the genitalia, and that is determined by endogenous hormones," says Boulware, medical director of the Yale Gender Program. "So it's a combination of chromosomes, hormones and appearance."

That is not to say that there aren't physiological differences between those assigned male at birth and those assigned female at birth. Differences in size and muscle mass are two examples.

"People automatically want to talk about Olympians when we're talking about middle schoolers." Anne Lieberman

There are, however, few studies that provide insight on transgender athletes that would be helpful in setting policy and/or law for middle and high school athletes. Studies exist that examine the physiological effects of hormone therapy, but those often focus on adult transgender people doing athletic things like pushups and running, and not young transgender athletes at various stages of puberty.

"Puberty is the period where the sex segregation in terms of physical capacities becomes distinct," Karolinska Institutet researcher Tommy Lundberg said to ESPN in 2020. "Before puberty, there's not really any biological basis or biological need to separate boys and girls in sports."

So for those children who never go through endogenous male puberty, is there really any difference?

"I would say no," Boulware says.

A number of transgender young people will never go through the puberty that is associated with their sex assigned at birth. Children who identify as transgender at a young age may socially transition in elementary school. As puberty nears, they may begin puberty blockers, a treatment that medically delays the onset of puberty. And then in early- to mid-teenage years, they may begin cross-hormone therapy. It is worth noting that puberty blockers are reversible and many effects of cross-hormone therapy -- though not all -- are as well. And when it comes to surgery, it's rarely performed on minors. "The standard of care is still 18," Boulware says. "Many insurance companies require you to be 18."

The laws passed in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi and Montana include elementary school students in the bill text. While they allow for coed sports, if a transgender girl wants to play girls' sports, these laws make that impossible. "We think that's the most fair, consistent way to do it," Sharp says.

It may be consistent, but the fairness is disputed.

"People often conflate the levels of sport we're talking about," Athlete Ally director of policy and programs Anne Lieberman says. "People automatically want to talk about Olympians when we're talking about middle schoolers."

And sometimes even younger than that.

Stephanie loves soccer

STEPHANIE LOVES TO PLAY soccer. At 9 years old, she's been playing for what feels like her whole life. "I'm pretty sure it was ever since I could kick a ball," she says. (Stephanie's family requested to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety, so their names have been changed).

Stephanie has grown up around sports. Both of her parents played at the Division I level. Her mom, Julie, played tennis, and her dad, John, played basketball. When she goes to the park with her dad, Stephanie often shoots hoops with him. She also runs track, which she says helps her in soccer, too. "That's part of why I'm really fast," she says.

Stephanie began articulating her gender identity as soon as she could formulate words. "I just knew I was a girl," she says.

Last school year, one of her teachers asked the students to share things that make them unique. Stephanie raised her hand, and when the teacher called on her, she said that she was transgender. "And then everybody just kept raising their hand, wanting to answer about a brother or sister or something," Stephanie says.

"Before puberty, there's not really any biological basis or biological need to separate boys and girls in sports." Tommy Lundberg

When Stephanie first told her parents that she was a girl, John and Julie brushed it off. Over time, it became clear that what Stephanie was articulating wasn't a phase. Julie realized that during a regular doctor's visit. When the doctor asked her then-4-year-old daughter if she was a boy or a girl, Stephanie responded clearly and firmly that she was, in fact, a girl.

"I burst into tears at the doctor's office, and I do now, thinking about it," Julie says, her eyes welling up. "I was scared. I'd been doing research on the internet, but I was still terrified."

Stephanie wore dresses to kindergarten and changed her pronouns in first grade. Her parents legally changed her name four years ago because air travel had started to become complicated. The changes have largely been positive and without too much difficulty at school, but Stephanie was pulled out of the girls restroom by a teacher when she was younger. In tears, she insisted that bathroom was where she was supposed to be. "I kept telling her my mom said I could," Stephanie says.

Julie and John wanted their kids to play sports before they even had them. John grew up in multiple countries, and sports allowed him to connect with teammates from different backgrounds. "The access it gives you to people that you would never meet if you're just hanging out with your school or your family, that's a huge deal for me," he says. "I don't want her to miss out on what I had and possibly even more. She's a great little athlete. And she's talented and smart. She could do so much."

Stephanie and her family live in Arizona, where legislation has been introduced that would restrict transgender athletes' participation in sports. So far, none has become law.

Julie has been to legislators' offices. She sat across from elected officials, arguing on behalf of her daughter. Stephanie usually wants to come, but Julie thinks she's too young. In one official's office, Julie noticed a photo on his wall of his kids playing soccer at a park where she has often watched Stephanie play. "You know, there's a good chance your daughter has played against my daughter in soccer," she said to him. "You would have no idea. She's just like any other little girl."

He didn't respond the way she had hoped. "His face was terrified," Julie says. She pauses and sighs.

"I just wish that they put themselves in our shoes."

Fair and inclusive

THE REALITY IS, there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Should the same laws that regulate Olympics and the NCAA dictate who can participate in middle school? Clubs? Intramurals? Under current Mississippi law, a transgender woman cannot play intramural women's basketball at Ole Miss.

"I think that people have positioned this idea of fairness versus inclusion as though they are in direct opposition of one another," transgender athlete and advocate Chris Mosier says. "And that's not the way that it actually is. Sports can be fair and inclusive at the same time."

What does policy that is fair and inclusive look like? "The short answer is: it's complicated," Mosier says.

When it comes to school sports, Mosier and other inclusion advocates believe transgender youth should be able to participate in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity without having to jump through legal and medical hoops.

"It is unreasonable to hold young people in school sports to the same criteria and policies as professional or Olympic and Paralympic athletes," Mosier says.

"This all started with me." Barbara Ehardt

Beyond K-12 athletics, the ground is rapidly shifting. The NCAA guidelines, which have been in place since 2011, recommend the following: transgender men can compete in either the men's or women's category if they haven't begun testosterone therapy, but must compete in the men's category if they have begun testosterone therapy; transgender women may compete in the women's category after one year of testosterone suppression and estrogen therapy, and may compete in the men's category if not engaged in hormone therapy. While not enforced for NCAA member schools, those rules are in place for all NCAA championships, and some transgender athletes have competed successfully, though not without controversy. June Eastwood won a conference championship in the women's indoor mile in 2020 and CeCé Telfer won the 2019 Division II women's 400m hurdles, becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA championship.

In the decade those NCAA guidelines have existed, they've been used as a framework for other governing body policies, including high school associations. The fast pace of the bills being circulated across the country, however, has brought renewed scrutiny to both the NCAA and International Olympic Committee guidelines.

"Most of the existing policies at the college and elite levels, including the IOC policy and many national governing bodies, lack attention to any athlete's social transition," Mosier says.

Policy as it is currently designed on this issue in the United States, including among most high school associations, focuses on mitigating the assumed advantage of a transgender athlete, and ensuring that no athlete is pretending to be someone they aren't to gain a competitive advantage, specifically in girls' and women's sports.

Not all policies focus on those ideas, though. Canada's U Sports, the national governing body of college sports in Canada, employs a simple policy for its varsity teams: "student-athletes may compete on the sport team that corresponds with either their sex assigned at birth or their gender identity, provided that at all times student-athletes are in compliance with the Canadian Anti-Doping Program."

"Less than [2]% of college athletes go on to play elite sports," Lieberman says. "The majority of college athletes are playing sports for the love of it, for the experience with their peers, and to be a part of a community."

At the Olympic level, naturally, more scrutiny exists for all athletes, including transgender athletes. The IOC guidelines allow transgender men to compete without restriction, and transgender women to compete in the women's category following one year of hormone therapy and blood testosterone levels under 10 nanomoles per liter. These regulations, however, are expected to change in the coming months.

The IOC adopted its first transgender athlete policy in 2003 and revised it in 2015, and the first openly transgender athletes competed in Tokyo earlier this year. Two nonbinary athletes, skateboarder Alana Smith and soccer player Quinn, competed in women's sports. Quinn became the first member of the transgender community to medal when they won gold with the Canadian soccer team. There were also two transgender women. Chelsea Wolfe was a reserve for the U.S. BMX delegation, and Laurel Hubbard competed in weightlifting for New Zealand. She failed to complete any of her three lifts.

Kris falls for football

KRIS WILKA DRIBBLES a basketball at a park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The early summer sun beats down on the asphalt, the clear blue sky contrasting against the green grass and hedges. Large homes -- many with oversized or wraparound porches -- tower across the street in the historic district. It's a busy day at the park, but the basketball court is empty except for Wilka in his T-shirt and long shorts. At 5-foot-6 and 14 years old, he's about to enter eighth grade. He lines up from 12 feet, but the ball clangs off the rim.

"I'm working on my shot," he says with a smirk.

He sits down at the picnic table and squints his blue eyes in the sun. He has sandy brown hair -- short on the sides with a tuft on top -- and freckles splash across his nose and cheeks. He's been teaching himself how to play guitar. "That's All Right, Mama," he says, referring to the song by Elvis Presley. "Because it's the first one that I heard that I think I could play."

This is not the first interview Wilka has done, far from it. As legislation was introduced across the country this spring, including in his state, he has consistently spoken out. "Well, some people, they don't have a voice, and I want to be that voice for those people," Wilka says. "I've had a cousin come out after she heard my story. That's why I do this. So people feel more comfortable in their own skin."

This isn't a new conversation in South Dakota. The state's first bill aimed at transgender athletes was filed during the 2016 session after the South Dakota High School Activities Association adopted a policy more inclusive of transgender athletes. The policy in question required a transgender person wishing to participate in sports consistent with their gender identity to provide documentation, including a physician's note, that demonstrates their gender identity as "sincerely held as part of the person's core identity." The 2016 bill, HB 1112, sought to void that policy. Although it failed, it opened the door in South Dakota to other legislation targeting transgender youth that has spanned the last half-decade.

"There have been almost 30 pieces of anti-LGBTQ and Two Spirit legislation in the past seven years," says Jett Jonelis, advocacy manager for the ACLU of South Dakota. "It's just kind of been an evolution of different attempts. After marriage equality, it was bathroom bills. And then it was locker rooms. And now it's health care and sports."

In many states that have introduced bills that would restrict sports access, there have also been bills that would criminalize gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. Only Arkansas passed such a bill into law. It was subsequently blocked by a federal judge in July.

Wilka began communicating that he was a boy from the age of 2. He fell in love with football when his cousins introduced him to the Green Bay Packers. "And then I finally found the Dallas Cowboys, and I've been a supporting member of Cowboy Nation ever since," he says.

Wilka began playing in the South Dakota Junior Football league after he discovered he could throw a football pretty well. "I didn't want to play flag," he says. "I was like 'I'm playing tackle or else I'm not playing football.'"

He started as a quarterback, but moved to the offensive line after he exceeded the weight limit for quarterbacks in the younger leagues. He's considering trying out for quarterback again now that size isn't an issue since he's in middle school, but he also likes being on the line.

Most of the bills targeting transgender youth in sports aren't considering transgender boys like Wilka who want to play boys sports. But that wasn't the case in South Dakota this year. HB 1217, the bill that passed both legislative chambers, would have required students to submit their age, sex assigned at birth, along with verification that they have not taken "performance enhancing drugs, including anabolic steroids" for the past 12 months. For many transgender boys, testosterone is part of medically transitioning.

HB 1217 was ultimately sent back to the legislature through a "style and form" veto from Noem, and once the legislature declined to accept her recommended changes, the bill died. In an op-ed explaining her veto, Noem argued the bill wouldn't have held up in court. The PED provision was absent from the executive orders she signed. A provision like the one in HB 1217 isn't the only way these bills affect transgender boys. Alabama's law bars someone assigned female at birth from playing on boys teams, unless there is no equivalent for girls. If something like that were to pass in South Dakota, Wilka would likely not be affected since he plays football, but a transgender boy who plays soccer in Alabama is not allowed to play boys' soccer under the current law.

It's that possibility -- the thought of losing football -- that eats at Wilka.

"If I didn't have football," Wilka says, "I wouldn't be happy."

What's next?

IF 2021 HAS made anything clear, it's that these bills are not going away. A bill affecting transgender athletes was debated during the Texas legislature's special session, and it remains unclear if it will pass. And come 2022, more bills are likely to be filed.

"The primary goal is exactly what the legislation is seeking to accomplish, which is that a girl, a female athlete, no matter where she lives, no matter what grade she's in, or whether she's in high school or college, but she knows when she tries out for the team or steps up to the starting line, that she's going to have a fair and level playing field," Sharp says.

Inclusion advocates are worried.

"I don't think that lawmakers are done trying to push this, because there have been very few consequences to states that have enacted this," Mosier says.

When laws like Indiana's 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and North Carolina's 2016 "bathroom bill" passed, the public outcry was significant. The pressure was so great after then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed RFRA that he amended the state's new law eight days later. In North Carolina, corporations reversed expansion plans, conferences and concerts canceled, and the ACC, NCAA, and NBA moved events out of the state.

"Sports can be fair and inclusive at the same time." Chris Mosier

But as states have passed laws restricting transgender athletes, there's been mostly silence.

"I would guarantee you that if the NCAA, for example, just as an example, spoke out after HB 500 in Idaho, and said, 'We won't hold championships in states that have this kind of legislation,' we wouldn't have seen another bill pass," Lieberman says.

On Aug. 3, the NCAA said it had no plans for relocation but that it will "require all hosts to reaffirm their commitment to ensure a nondiscriminatory and safe environment for all college athletes per their host agreement."

Whether these laws will be allowed to go into effect and/or remain in place also remains an open question. Lawsuits have been filed in Idaho, West Virginia and Florida, and the Human Rights Campaign has announced intentions to begin litigation in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

But all these bills, passed or not, and laws, in effect or not, can leave an impact beyond the courts and fields and trails. The Trevor Project is the world's largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people. In a recent national survey, 94% of LGBTQ youth indicated that recent politics negatively influenced their well-being and mental health.

"These bills have had a very negative impact," says CEO of The Trevor Project, Amit Paley. "Words really do matter. We see from our research that the impact of these words has a harmful impact on the mental health of trans and nonbinary young people and their sense of self."

Becky's trials

BECKY PEPPER-JACKSON scampered through the city park, her feet pounding against the pavement as she passed between the trees with the other kids trying out for the team.

The first part of her first middle school cross country practice was easy, Becky thought. It was the second half that kicked her butt.

"The hard part was doing the sprints," she says.

Her coach set up a square in the park. The runners sprinted one side and then jogged the other three. Then, it was two and two. Then, three and one. And finally, a sprint around the whole square.

Becky was tired at the end of it, but mostly she hoped she'd get to keep coming to practice.

A couple of weeks and a handful of tiring practices later, the girls' cross country roster was official. Becky pulled out her phone to FaceTime her mom, who was at work.

Not everyone in the community has supported Becky's pursuit. "There's mixed responses," Heather says. "They just think she's going to be in an advantage as a runner because she was born a male."

Heather answered Becky's call and saw her daughter staring back at her with a serious look on her face. "Mom, they decided who made the team," Becky said.

Heather sucked in a breath. "OK, how'd it go?"

A smile broke out on Becky's face. "I made the team!"