Updated 5:05 p.m. | Posted 11:48 a.m.
After months of review, the Minnesota State High School League voted Thursday to let transgender athletes play on the sports teams that best align with their gender identity.
The vote was 18-1. One board member abstained.
The decision came at a packed hearing where more than 20 speakers addressed the high school league board before the vote.
Three Republican state lawmakers told the board that the Legislature, not the high school league, should handle policy on transgender student athletes. State Rep. Barb Yarusso, DFL- Shoreview, countered that the transgender policy would only apply to a handful of students and urged the board to act.
Supporters of the policy say it will make transgender students feel more welcome in sports. Critics say it's risky to let transgender girls, who were born as boys, play on girls' teams.
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Each side had a chance to make a final plea to the board on why or why not transgender students should be free to play on the team they feel is best aligned with their gender identity.
Melanie Outcalt, a 10th grader, said she was worried transgender girls who were born as boys would have an advantage in her favorite sport, volleyball.
"I think it's unfair that you're giving boys the opportunity to proclaim themselves as girls just so they can play on a girls team and potentially take away our scholarships," Outcalt said.
That's the same argument made in a full-page ad placed by the Child Protection League last Sunday in the Star Tribune.
The group theorized in the ad that the policy would mean transgender students would end up sharing locker rooms and showers with non-transgender girls.
Advocates for transgender athletes say those fears are baseless, and have never been a problem in the two dozen states with similar policies already in place. Minnesota will become the 33rd state to implement a policy for transgender high school athletes, according to high school league media specialist John Millea.
Elliott Kunerth, a 17-year old transgender man and a high school senior in Mankato, urged the board to adopt the policy.
"Transphobia and a simple lack of education regarding the transgender community are not an excuse to discriminate against transgender players," Kunerth said. "Nor will they be valid excuses to treat someone differently. Whether or not a player happens to be transgender is no one else's concern."
Board members began considering the policy in July, and tabled a vote in October for further review. There was no delay this time. Members discussed it for about 30 minutes then took a vote.
After the vote, board chair Scott McCready, who is activities director at St. Charles High School in southeastern Minnesota, said the policy was needed to guide school officials like him on how to include transgender athletes in sports.
"If I have a kid come into my school tomorrow I've got to know how to deal with it, and other than going to ask my principal and superintendent prior to this, this really helps."
McCready said the measure amounts to a mandatory policy for schools, with appeals overseen by the league.
Transgender students who want to play on the team of their choice will be required to submit statements from parents or a doctor to school officials. But they won't be required to show proof of hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery.
Critics of the policy aren't sure what their next step will be.
Autumn Leva, spokesperson for the Minnesota Family Council, said her group wanted the board to adopt a policy that requires students to play on a team that lines up with the gender on their birth certificate.
"There's going to be some very unhappy people," Leva said. "This was obviously a very controversial issue and some folks are going to be very, very upset about this."
The policy will go into effect next school year, but religious schools will be exempt.
Read the transgender athlete policy the Minnesota State High School League approved Thursday: