Snubbed by one team, transgender football player feels at home at last

Christina Ginther learns how to tackle.
Christina Ginther practices tackling form for the first time as coach Krista Clausen observes on the fields of the Crystal Community Center in Crystal on Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

All Christina Ginther wanted to do was make new friends and find a sport where she belonged. She had never played football before.

When she tried out for the Minnesota Vixen women's football team last October, she was trying to rebuild her life. About two years earlier, she had begun her transition from male to female, and in the process had watched her marriage and several friendships dissolve.

"Even close friends that I had, who initially said, 'Hey, we'll support you,' disappeared," she said. "And so I'm now like, 'Where do I fit in in the world? Who are my people?'"

Ginther, 44, said she didn't think her being transgender would pose a problem for the Vixen. After all, she learned about the team at the Twin Cities Pride Festival. She recalled her reaction as, "Oh, this an LGBTQ-friendly organization. Cool."

Now Ginther has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the team, its owner Laura Brown, and the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL).

After her tryouts, Ginther said, she got a phone call from Brown.

Christina Ginther in her St. Paul home.
Christina Ginther is interviewed in her St. Paul home on March 3.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"She said, 'Well, your numbers were good. But in the process of drawing up player contracts, we looked at your social media and found out that you're transgender.'"

Ginther recalled Brown telling her the league didn't allow players who were born biologically male because of safety issues.

"I hung up the phone and just felt violated," Ginther said. "I mean, just the sense of, 'I'm a freak. I'm a defective. I am not worthy to be with this team.'"

The Vixen is considered a semi-pro team. It doesn't pay its players; in fact, the players pay to play.

The attorney representing the team said the Vixen was bound by the rules of the IWFL, which the Vixen was a part of at the time. Greg Van Gompel said the league has a clear policy.

"It says, 'A player may not play in the IWFL, unless they are now, and always have been, legally and medically a female, as determined by their birth certificate and driver's license," Van Gompel explained.

He said that Brown offered Ginther a role keeping statistics or helping the coach, and that Brown had asked the league to address its policy on transgender athletes. A call to the league, seeking comment for this story, went unreturned.

Ginther's attorney, Nicholas May, alleges the team violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which bars discrimination against contractors on the basis of sexual orientation.

Christina Ginther does a push-up drill.
Christina Ginther does push-up drills alongside her teammates during a Minnesota Machine practice.
Evan Frost | MPR News

May and Ginther have been friends since they were about 12, when they both attended St. Thomas Academy and rode bikes to each other's houses in St. Paul in the 1980s. At the Catholic, all-boys military school, May said, Ginther was known to play the guitar part to "Purple Haze" — with his teeth — while May played drums.

May had no idea about his friend's transition until another classmate suggested he look up Ginther's Facebook page.

He got emotional when asked why he decided to represent her.

"I'm very proud she's my friend," said May. "I sometimes wonder, would I have the courage to do some of the things she's done? And I don't know if I do. I feel fortunate that I get to help because I think this is a righteous cause."

Christina Ginther is nearly 6 feet tall and carries a slightly muscular frame. She took testosterone blockers until her gender-reassignment surgery last summer, and she's been taking estrogen for more than two years. She said that today her testosterone levels are close to zero, far less than the average levels of someone born biologically female.

The question of whether transgender athletes have a competitive edge in sports has been debated at the Olympics and in the high schools. To Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, the answer is, "Yes, of course, transgender women have advantages. Disadvantages, too."

Harper, a transgender runner from Oregon, has advised the International Olympic Committee, which has much looser policies on transgender athletes. She also wrote the first paper on the performance of transgender athletes to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"If we're talking advantages, transgender women are on average taller, larger," Harper said. A "more pertinent question," she said, is whether they belong in a separate category. "I think the available research says probably not."

Hormones matter more than anatomy, she said. Testosterone helps athletes build stamina and strength. And once the testosterone is reduced through hormone therapy, muscle mass and physical endurance typically follow.

The Minnesota Machine discuss the day's practice.
Christina Ginther talks with teammates at the end of a Minnesota Machine practice inside the Crystal Community Center on March 2.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Think of it this way, Harper said: You're comparing a large car with a small engine to a small car with a small engine. While there are some advantages to having a larger frame, smaller cars might be more nimble and have other advantages.

After Ginther was denied a spot on the Vixen, she found acceptance on another team, the Minnesota Machine, which is part of a different women's football league. The Women's Football Alliance allows trans women to play as long as they've had gender reassignment surgery, two years of hormone therapy and have changed their legal documents to indicate they are female. Ginther has done all three.

"Christina's a beast," said teammate Sofia Ramirez, a veteran player who has no concerns about safety when she plays with her.

"She's strong and fast, but I know some women who are faster and stronger than her," Ramirez said. "So if there are any safety concerns, I'd be thinking of her, having never played football before — not about her hurting other people."

As a man, Ginther ran marathons, competed in tae kwon do and lifted weights; now, she said, she's weaker and more prone to injury. She rolled her ankle going after the ball at a recent indoor practice.

But as someone who's never played any team sport, she said, joining this team made her feel like she'd finally found her people.

"We call ourselves machine parts," she said. "I'm just one part of the machine, and my contributions help along with everyone else's."

She hopes that by filing her lawsuit as she nears middle age, she might inspire transgender youth who feel like they don't belong.

"A lot of times, we're afraid our voice won't be heard or maybe the consequences of speaking up will just make things worse for us," she said. "But if anything, trans people should feel empowered. Yes, we do have a voice."

And in a weird twist, the Minnesota Vixen, the team that barred her from playing, has since joined the same league that her current team plays in. That means Ginther will get to square off with the Vixen — not only in the courts, but on the field.