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Amid high political tensions, Healey administration weighs in on federal protections for trans student athletes

Maura Healey spoke to the UMass Amherst women’s basketball team during a visit in October 2022. Healey stopped by the college town while on a campaign tour.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Governor Maura Healey’s administration on Monday stepped into what has quickly become a political minefield: transgender student participation in school sports.

Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler submitted public comment in support of the Biden administration’s proposed changes to a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools.

The suggested modifications to Title IX would prohibit schools and colleges from enacting blanket bans against transgender students participating on teams that align with their gender identity, rather than their sex assigned at birth. It would apply to all public K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities that receive federal funding.

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Legislation taking aim at transgender youth has been embraced by Republican legislatures and candidates alike, unifying social conservatives nationwide.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that supports transgender rights, 21 states have passed legislation limiting transgender students’ participation in sports since 2020. Other legislation has taken aim at classroom instruction on gender identity and use of school bathrooms by transgender students.

The topic has come to the forefront as the 2024 election cycle heats up, setting the stage for more debate in the coming months. Healey, who was tapped as a super-surrogate for President Biden’s re-election campaign, said Monday that she “strongly support[s]” the proposed changes to Title IX, which she said would “bring federal regulations closer to existing Massachusetts laws” that protect transgender students.

In his written comment to US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Monday, Tutwiler echoed Healey’s support and noted that Massachusetts’ laws go even further than the protections the federal government is proposing.

While the Biden administration’s proposal would make exceptions in some cases, Massachusetts’ laws fully prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

“It is essential that the Department should make clear through this rule that animus towards transgender people is not a valid justification for denying participation in school sports under Title IX,” he wrote. “It is incumbent on schools and school administrators to create a culture in which transgender and gender nonconforming students feel safe, supported, and [fully] included, particularly in athletics.”

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The proposed changes to the 50-year-old federal law were announced last month after two years of outreach to “stakeholders,” federal officials said. The announcement was made the same day the US Supreme Court refused to intervene in a fight over the legality of a West Virginia law that bans transgender student athletes from playing on their school’s female sports teams.

Jennifer Levi, the senior director of transgender and queer rights at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and a law professor at Western New England University, said the proposed change comes at an important time, as many states are out of compliance with Title IX.

“There have been far too many states that have issued rules and passed laws that have excluded transgender student athletes from sports, and are in violation of Title IX,” she said. “The draft rule . . . makes it crystal clear that students have to be given full and equal inclusion.”

Alexander Chen, director of the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, said it’s important for leaders like Healey to weigh in publicly, especially given the political rhetoric around transgender youth.

His clinic, along with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Athlete Ally, the Transgender Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Transathlete.com, is planning to submit a 23-page comment on the proposal that includes personal stories from young transgender athletes about how sports can be “life-changing” opportunities for finding inclusion and acceptance.

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More students are coming out as transgender, Chen said, and are “very aware” of the way their existence has been politicized.

“There has been an increase in the number of transgender youth who report depression and self-harm,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are talking about children and the impact of politicians who use these unfounded stereotypes to progress their political positions. I think it’s admirable of Governor Healey to do what more elected officials ought to do.”

A 2022 report from the Williams Institute, a research center at the University of California Los Angeles law school, found that 1.4 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds and 1.3 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States were transgender, compared with about 0.5 percent of all adults.

One of the students included in the comment from Chen’s coalition is a 17-year-old transgender boy who participates in powerlifting.

“I deal with a lot of prejudice outside of the team, but on the team I’m just another lifter . . . and it’s great because they see me as me, not as a preconception or a stereotype,” said the boy, who used the initial “O” in the statement. “The stigma and discrimination I experience being trans already puts me in a position where I understand discrimination and isolation, and I never want people to feel the same way.”

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Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.