By Isabella Bulone
Last year, junior Dariel Fernandez decided that he wanted to join the softball team. The only problem: Dariel is a person who is biologically male and identifies as gender non-binary, but LREI only has a girls varsity softball team.
Although LREI prides itself on inclusion, the policy (or lack thereof) for trans students with an interest in joining a sports team has proved to be problematic. To join the softball team, Fernandez had to go through an extensive process, leaving him feeling even more excluded than before. After meetings with principal Micah Dov Gottlieb and conversations with people that work for the Independent School Athletic League (ISAL), he was finally able to join and play with the girls varsity softball team. However, Fernandez’s experience brought up flaws with the process and policies installed for trans-student athletes and gender non-binary students.
Fernandez’s process of joining the softball team was a long one. He first met with English teacher Ileana Jimenez for advice, and at her urging decided to meet with principal Micah Dov Gottlieb.
“I had to ask Micah apparently, so I had a meeting with Micah, and because the school never had had a policy installed yet,” said Fernandez. “It was like something we were taking by the ear.”
Gottlieb took on the role as mediator in this situation to help Fernandez join the girls softball team.
“I didn’t actually do anything other than Dariel met with me, I said ‘happy to support you, Dariel,’” Gottlieb explained. “I said, ‘Peter [Fisher], what do we need to do to make this happen?’ Peter did [his part]. We met with Dariel and said looks okay and that was it.”
Peter Fisher, the athletic director for LREI, brought up Fernandez’s request to join the girls softball team at a league meeting.
“The good thing is, is that no one had an issue with it,” he said. “Everyone approved it and no one had any complaints.”
Both LREI and the ISAL have a say in who participates on different sports teams.
“I brought it to the league meeting and told them what I knew and everyone was like it’s fine,” Fisher said.
At the league meeting the athletic directors all voted on whether or not Fernandez could play on the softball team and everyone approved.
League meetings consist of all of the athletic directors from all of the private school in ISAL league. However the communication between the league and Fernandez was lacking.
“It’s the league who decides [who can play] and I was totally unclear about what the league was doing,” Fernandez explained.
Even though Fernandez was allowed to play in the end, this process proved to be inefficient and emotionally draining.
“It was super stressful,” Fernandez said. “It felt like I was getting dragged along through it.”
Many points in the process left Fernandez feeling confused and wary of his role on the team.
“For the first game I still didn’t know if I could play at all. Like literally we were getting there and [our coach] was like, ‘I honestly don’t know what to do, but just play,’” Fernandez said.
Gottlieb acknowledged and explained that the process took longer than they would have liked because they wanted to make sure Fernandez would have a positive experience on the softball field.
“It wasn’t like he came, I talked to Peter, boom. I can imagine that there was a time period where he [Dariel] was like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’” Gottlieb said. “In the case like Dariel where you are doing something that we have not experienced before it might take a little bit of time and we tried to go as quickly as we could and let Dariel know that we support him as much as possible. But it did take a little bit of time because Peter wanted to follow through properly and make sure that the experience that Dariel had on the softball field was not one where someone would question or make him feel bad or challenge him in a way that was inappropriate.”
A point of concern for Fernandez through this process was the idea of fairness during games.
“Actually when I was playing they were like if you’re too good we’ll have to take you out.” Fernandez explained.
This is not a concern left unnoticed by Fisher. “What I’m worried about I think is the future,” he said. “Like if someone who was really good did that, if someone was hitting home runs where everyone else couldn’t hit it out field, that’s going to make people mad.”
According to Fisher the school has never dealt with a situation like Fernandez’s before. There is no written school or league policy for transgender or gender non-binary student athletes.
“It’s pretty new to us and I think there’s no school policy because it’s never come up, so he was the first [person to identify as gender non binary who wanted to join a sports team],” Fisher said.
Although this particular case hasn’t come up before, the school has historically stuck by an unwritten policy for transgender and gender non-binary students interested in joining a sport.
“Our general policy is we support our students in being involved in athletics in whatever identity, gender identity that they [identify as],” Gottlieb explained.
As of now there is no written league or school policy for transgender or gender non-binary students, but there will possibly be one developed in the future.
“I don’t think we need to be ground breakers for this because it’s already happening everywhere else and we’ll probably look where it’s working and where it’s not working,” Fisher said. “I know it’s going to get tricky but we’ll figure it out and look at what other leagues are doing, starting with the NCAA, and adjust it to our league.”