No sudden disclosure: Transgender athlete’s fight was publicly revealed long ago in legal battle with Florida

The revelation that a transgender girl was playing on the Monarch High girls’ volleyball team — as well as the resulting administrative shakeup — shocked many this week. But the student’s battle had actually been detailed in public court papers for more than two years.

The now 16-year-old athlete and her parents filed a federal lawsuit in June 2021 challenging a state law that bans transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams. In March, her lawyers revealed in a court filing that despite the law, she was actively playing volleyball on a high school girls’ team.

The lawyers also disclosed that the gender on her birth certificate had been changed from male to female.

A judge ruled Nov. 6 against the student, while also allowing her family to file an amended complaint.

But it wasn’t until Nov. 20 that Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata learned the athlete may have played at the Coconut Creek school, he told reporters this past week. Licata instructed the district’s Special Investigative Unit on Monday to review if any laws were broken. 

Licata also suspended or temporarily reassigned five Monarch officials, including Principal James Cecil, actions that prompted two days of student walkouts.

The state Department of Education issued a statement Tuesday expressing outrage that a transgender girl had been allowed to play, saying it violates the state law passed in 2021 called the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”

“As soon as the Department was notified that a biological male was playing on a girls’ team in Broward County, we instructed the district to take immediate action since this is a direct violation of Florida law,” Cailey Myers, a spokeswoman for the department said on Tuesday. “It is completely unacceptable for the male student to have been allowed to play on a girls’ team, and we expect there will be serious consequences for those responsible.”

But the department was actually informed a transgender student was playing on a Broward girls’ volleyball team in March as part of the lawsuit it was defending.

“Plaintiff currently plays high school girls’ volleyball (and previously soccer) under continuous and ongoing threats of [the law’s] enforcement,” lawyers for the student wrote in a March 10 motion opposing the state’s motion to dismiss the suit.

The student is represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, a group that fights for LGBTQ rights. No one from the organization or the student’s family would comment to the South Florida Sun Sentinel this week, despite multiple attempts.

The group’s lawyers wrote in the March court filing that the state’s effort to dismiss the lawsuit “ignores both Plaintiff’s current participation on a high school girls’ sports team in Florida and controlling Supreme Court precedent that permits a plaintiff to bring a pre-enforcement challenge to legislation.”

There’s no indication the state Department of Education asked the district in March to take action against school officials after it was revealed the student was still playing volleyball.

“It should never have required the Department’s involvement at all,” Myers said Thursday in an email to the Sun Sentinel. Citing the state law, she said the “individuals” should “be held accountable.”

It’s unclear who at the Broward school district may have known the student was playing on the girls’ team. The district was named in the original lawsuit in 2021, but was one of several parties dismissed from it in February 2022, leaving Education Commissioner Manny Diaz and the State Board of Education as the sole defendants.

Licata, who started in July, said he first learned of the case Nov. 20 when he got a complaint from “a constituent” who wished to remain anonymous.

“I was unaware of any lawsuit at the time that I received the information. We actually didn’t even have the student’s name at the time,” he told reporters this week. “I had no idea about a lawsuit or anything pending in that so that connection was not made whatsoever.”

Whether anyone else in the district knew the identity of the student in the lawsuit will be part of the district’s investigation, district spokesman John Sullivan said. Neither the student’s name nor her school are identified in the lawsuit.

At the time of the March court filing, the student was a freshman and had completed one season on the Monarch volleyball team. The team had a losing 5-8 record that year. This fall, the student played a second season on the Monarch girls’ volleyball team as a sophomore. This year, the team had a winning 13-7 season and made it to district semifinals, where the team lost Oct. 17 to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

It’s unclear whether the team may have to forfeit any games in which the student played. Officials from the Florida High School Athletics Association, which administrators high school sports in the state, couldn’t be reached.

The lawsuit said the student was trying to remain discreet about her gender identity, knowing that being outed would increase her likelihood of being removed from the team. The remedy for violations to the state law is civil litigation by anyone who believes they are harmed, such as a female athlete who fails to make the cut of a team that has a transgender girl on it.

“Every time she participates in practice or steps onto the volleyball court to compete with and against her peers, she runs the risk of inviting ‘any student’ initiating protracted and invasive litigation … ” the student’s lawyers wrote March 10.

The student “should not be required to live with the threat of her identity being revealed, especially given the high-profile nature of this case and the unfortunate inevitability that at some point, her playing status will be challenged,” her lawyers wrote in March. “Other federal courts have recognized the risks to young people, both physical and emotional, of having their gender identity involuntarily disclosed.”

The March court filing also revealed that the state of Florida allowed the gender on the student’s birth certificate to be changed.

“Plaintiff’s position is that she belongs on the girls’ team because she is a girl, and the State of Florida has already recognized her as such by issuing an amended birth certificate that identifies her as a girl,” the March filing said.

A guide prepared by several LGBTQ groups said, “The Florida Administrative Code allows for amendments to the sex on a birth certificate with ‘original, certified, or notarized supporting documentary evidence.’ The code does not specify requirements of supporting evidence.”

A change of gender on the birth certificate is allowed for minors whose parents agree, said Ash Orr, a spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, which helped draft the guide.

“The paperwork is filled out by the parent or guardian, not the minor, but yes, with permission, trans youth in Florida can have their gender marker changed on their birth certificate with parental/guardian permission,” Orr told the Sun Sentinel.

A spokesman for the state Health Department, which oversees amendments to birth certificates, could not be reached.

The Health Department rules allowing the gender on birth certificates to be changed predates a wave of recent state laws criticized by the LGBTQ community as being anti-transgender. These include a law passed this year banning gender-affirming care for minors.

The 2021 law banning athletes born male from playing on girls’ teams allows the gender listed on the birth certificate to be used as proof only if it “was filed at or near the time of the student’s birth.” The federal court documents don’t say when the child’s gender was changed on the birth certificate. The parents successfully petitioned the Broward County Circuit Court in March to change their child’s legal name to the one she now uses, which a judge approved in July.

The student’s federal lawsuit said she has identified as a girl ever since pre-school.

“As early as three years old, [the child] exhibited behavior that traditionally is associated with being a girl and would insist on wearing clothes and colors (pink) that girls wore,” the lawsuit states. “She saw herself as a girl and conveyed that to her parents in clear terms.”

At age 5 or 6, the parents realized their daughter is transgender, and she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria at age 7, the lawsuit said. “At age 11, at the recommendation of her endocrinologist, she began hormone blockers to stop testosterone,” the lawsuit said.

In 2021, “under medical supervision, she began receiving estrogen, and will continue to do so for the rest of her life. This will allow her to live as the girl/woman that she is,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said sports have been an essential part of her life, and she started playing soccer at age 7 and has also played basketball and softball. “Sports provide her with a sense of belonging, peer support, and life success, and are an essential part of her wellbeing and school experience,” the lawsuit said.

While soccer was her primary sport when she filed the suit as a middle school student in 2021, the March 2023 filing said her focus as a high school athlete had changed to volleyball. It’s unclear whether she tried to play on the Monarch girls’ soccer team. Richard Sarria, who coaches girls’ soccer at Monarch, declined to comment, citing the open investigation.

While the student’s lawyers argued that the Florida law banning transgender girls from girls’ sports teams is discriminatory to transgender people, U.S. District Judge Roy Altman, a Trump appointee, disagreed.

He said in his Nov. 6 ruling that the law applies to anyone born male, regardless of their gender identity, and noted that transgender boys are allowed to play on boys’ teams.

“Given the historic (and ongoing) imbalance in the athletic opportunities that are available to male and female students — the government has an important interest in protecting and promoting athletic opportunities for girls,” he wrote.

“The governmental interest claimed is redressing past discrimination against women in athletics and promoting equality of athletic opportunity between the sexes,” the judge wrote. “There is no question that this is a legitimate and important governmental interest.”

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