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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

East Valley teen is the first Washington transgender athlete to win a state high school track championship. But controversy followed

Verónica Garcia did not hear the boos when the race started last weekend.

When she took the lead in the State 2A girls 400-meter run at the track and field championships in Tacoma, they grew in volume and became unmistakable as she reached the finish line to become the first transgender high school athlete to place first in state.

Such victories are typically a time for celebration but the East Valley High School junior’s win has sparked controversy.

People criticized Garcia all season for participating on the girls track team. Yet the jeers at Saturday’s meet were “a bit more severe,” she said.

Garcia cheered and clapped for her competitors as they received their medals. When the announcer called her to the podium, the crowd fell silent and the other high school runners at the podium did not acknowledge her as they stood with hands clasped behind their backs.

As she accepted her gold medal, a voice in the crowd could be heard yelling, “She’s not a girl!”

Garcia expected the chilly reaction from the crowd, though she was “somewhat hurt” her peers did not offer congratulations.

“I guess maybe I expected sportsmanship because I was cheering the rest of them on when they were called. So I guess I expected to get that reciprocated,” she said. “But I didn’t get that.”

While the national debate continues to rage regarding the fairness of transgender participation in girls athletic competitions, Garcia said what’s lost is that the subjects of these controversies are often teenagers just trying to have fun in a sport they love.

“I’m just a teenager. I wish people would remember that,” Garcia said.

State meet results

The 16-year-old Garcia pulled away from her opponents with a time of 55.75 seconds in the final – a full second ahead of the second-place finisher at the state meet at Mount Tahoma High School last weekend.

Her win helped the East Valley Knights win the 2A title. Garcia did not set a state meet record in the 400. That is held by Jai’lyn Merriweather, who in 2017 ran the 400 in 53.83 seconds.

Records were set at the meet by East Valley senior Logan Hofstee, who swept the long-distance races in the competition and set 2A records in the 3,200 and 800 races.

East Valley Athletic Director Eric Vermaire said he did not want concerns about Garcia’s participation to overshadow her and the team’s accomplishments.

“Verónica contributed – no doubt about it. But it was a group of girls that did something as a team, and they are elated,” he said, noting this is the first state championship for East Valley’s girls track team since he was hired at the school seven years ago.

State rules allow transgender participation

For 18 years, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association has had a policy allowing students to compete in the division of the gender they “most consistently expressed.”

“All students have the opportunity to participate in WIAA athletics and/or activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity,” the 2023-24 WIAA handbook reads.

Washington is one of 16 states with policies that allows for full participation of trans, nonbinary and other gender-diverse students in school athletics. Other states may have more restrictive rules that prevent transgender student athletes from competing in their preferred category or more restrictive requirements about their participation.

East Valley High School sits less than 8 miles from the border with Idaho, where state lawmakers have been attempting to restrict transgender students from participating in girls and women’s sports.

In 2020, Idaho became the first state to ban transgender participation in school sports. Dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” the law barred all transgender women and girls from participating or trying out for female sports teams, from elementary school to the collegiate level.

A lawsuit was filed, claiming the bill is discriminatory. The Idaho law has not been allowed to be enforced since its passage and is currently under consideration by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unlike some states, Washington does not require transgender student athletes to undergo hormone replacement therapy or suppression of the hormones naturally produced by their bodies. Transgender athletes in Washington also are not required to disclose their medical information to play high school sports.

Garcia declined to disclose whether she has been prescribed hormone replacement therapy medicine or puberty blockers. Efforts this week to interview Garcia’s mother, Traci Brown, have not been successful. However, late last year Brown said she supports Garcia “100%.”

“I’m so proud of her,” she said at the time.

When determining Garcia’s eligibility to participate on the girls’ track team this year, Vermaire said he is following federal law, state law and WIAA rules.

“People feel like we’ve done something that we shouldn’t have done,” he said, “but we are doing everything the way it is laid out for us.”

Greater Spokane League Commissioner Paul Kautzman said in a statement that the GSL follows the WIAA guidelines and “supports all high school student-athletes regardless of gender or orientation.”

WIAA spokesperson Sean Bessette acknowledged the organization has received multiple complaints about Garcia’s participation in the week since her victory. In defending their policy, Bessette cited state law prohibiting discrimination and federal Title IX protections – both of which include transgender identity as a protected class.

“The WIAA considers numerous personal, political, and religious beliefs of communities that join the Association,” according to a statement provided by Bessette. “Many of these beliefs do not align, resulting in a conflict among the diverse groups the Association serves. For this reason, the WIAA Executive Board has been advised to follow state and federal law.”

Beth Daranciang, a Republican running for a state House seat from the Seattle area who has protested multiple sporting events with transgender athletes, attended the state track meet to support women’s and girls’ “sex-based rights.” She wants the WIAA to change its policy.

“It just seems very unfair,” she said of Garcia’s eligibility to participate in the competition. “Sports are based on physical competition. It’s not based on identity. So that’s why we should keep sports based on the physical distinctions between males and females.”

Signs in hand, Daranciang and several other protesters stood outside the fencing to protest Garcia’s participation in the state track meet. She said the competitors who lost to Garcia were being “bullied” by their school districts and the WIAA by allowing Garcia to compete.

“They were probably furious and hurt and feeling overwhelmed by the fact that they have no voice in this,” she said of the high school athletes.

Daranciang said she hopes Garcia receives treatment for gender dysphoria, which she called a “real” condition. But by participating in girls’ sports, she said Garcia was doing something deserving of criticism. Garcia was “belittling” and “stealing” from the other girls, Daranciang said.

“I don’t wish anything mean, but disagreeing with someone is not mean. Protesting something in civil language is not mean,” she said.

Following Garcia’s victory, several high-profile critics of transgender athletes rebuked the East Valley student. This includes Riley Gaines, who has spoken out against transgender people’s inclusion in sports after tying for fifth place with a transgender athlete in a collegiate swimming competition.

“Would you look at that … the thing that never happens happened again,” Gaines posted on X. She called Garcia a “boy” who “dominated” the event.

Garcia received support from Spokane’s Odyssey Youth Movement, which provides support and resources to transgender youth in Eastern Washington. Executive Director Ian Sullivan congratulated Garcia on behalf of the Odyssey Youth Movement and said transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse youth should have the “same rights and opportunities” as any other student.

“School activities and extracurriculars are designed for the growth and development of ALL students and we as a community should be working together to support & uplift every student in Washington State,” Sullivan said in a statement.

The negative attention and controversy could have a severely negative impact on Garcia, said Dr. Kellan Baker, Executive Director of Whitman-Walker Institute, a national organization that focuses on LGBTQ health.

“It’s horrendous. There’s already a mental health crisis among young people in this country, trans or not, and to be attacked for wanting the same thing that every other teenager wants – which is to fit in, to belong, to participate, to be on the team, to play … That’s incredibly damaging, and it’s incredibly cruel.”

It is also particularly dangerous, he said, for transgender youth – who are at higher risk of suicide and self-harm compared to their peers.

Garcia on the controversy

Since beginning her gender transition last year, Garcia said she has received a “taste of how hard we as a species can be for absolutely no reason other than being a little different.”

She said she has been bullied on and off the track, and has been the subject of what she calls “discriminatory comments” invalidating her identity as a transgender girl. Most of it has come from adults – not her classmates or teammates. Her track team has become “like a family” to Garcia, and their support has ushered her through dark days when she feels “like an outcast.”

“I can be myself and do things in a way that I was never really able to do. I kind of feel like I’m living my authentic self,” Garcia said of the past year.

Garcia said Vermaire has been her biggest supporter since coming out.

“Regardless of the situation, that is still a kid,” Vermaire said of the backlash. “It’s a polarizing situation, but we need to support kids. That’s what we do in education.”

It is in part because of such support that Garcia said she has come to love competing in track. She doesn’t race “for the medals.” She races because she enjoys it.

Garcia admitted there are “not easy answers” to transgender inclusion in sports.

But she wishes those who think she should not be able to compete would take their complaints to those who make policy decisions, rather than yelling at her.

“I’m just a teenager. It’s one thing if you want to advocate for whatever, but your message becomes deflated when you start insulting,” she said. “As soon as you start harassing transgender people, then I think your message starts to fall apart.”

“At the very least, give us respect, because I think the best thing anyone can do is, even if you don’t understand why we’re transgender, the very least is to be nice to us. Kindness goes a long way.”

This story includes Spokesman-Review reporting from 2023.