Republican state legislatures in more than a dozen states are advancing bills that would bar transgender women and girls from participating in women’s and girls sports at the youth, high school and collegiate levels. It’s an aggressive effort to strip rights from LGBTQ people on the state level that runs counter to President Joe Biden’s attempts to advance equality from the White House.
GOP-controlled legislative chambers in Mississippi, Utah, Montana and North Dakota have all approved legislation this year to prohibit transgender students from competing in sports that match their gender identity.
Republican lawmakers have introduced similar bills in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Texas and Tennessee, where Republican Gov. Bill Lee last week declared that trans athletes would “destroy women’s sports” if they are allowed to compete. Several of those bills have already advanced through legislative committees, although others have already run into heated opposition that may succeed in thwarting them, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) has said that he would not sign the bill that passed the state House there.
The conservative push follows the first-in-the-nation passage of a law barring trans athletes from girls and women’s sports in Idaho last year.
Equality advocates say the bills are actually a next, desperate attempt to restrict LGBTQ rights after other efforts ― including supposed “religious freedom” laws like the one Indiana approved in 2015 and so-called “bathroom bills,” which drew widespread opposition after North Carolina’s legislature passed HB 2 in 2016 ― failed to spread the way conservatives hoped. Like those proposals, which conservatives painted as efforts to stop businesses from having to serve gay couples or prevent trans people from attacking cisgender women in bathrooms, the bills to prevent trans girls and women from dominating women’s sports are a discriminatory solution in search of a problem, said Kate Oakley, the state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign.
“It’s not about any one of these issues actually being itself a real problem,” Oakley said. “They keep trying to find the thing that is going to make people afraid. And this is where they’ve settled, last year and this year, on these anti-trans bills that are targeting youth in particular.”
Republicans have framed these bills as an attempt to protect women’s sports and Title IX, the federal law that guarantees equal access to education and scholastic sports for women and girls. And proponents of the bills have pointed to occasional victories by transgender girls and women competing against cisgender opponents as proof that trans athletes pose a threat to women’s sports. But there is no obvious evidence supporting their claims.
“Currently, there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition,” a 2016 study published in the journal Sports Medicine found.
The NCAA and International Olympic Committee, as well as many state high school athletic associations and amateur and professional sports leagues, have adopted trans participation policies over the last 20 years, the Center for American Progress noted in a report released this month. LGBTQ rights advocates point to the policies as evidence that sporting bodies and associations can develop rules that promote participation and inclusion instead of outlawing it.
On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order expanding protections for LGBTQ people. But conservative state legislatures were already preparing an onslaught against trans rights in schools and sports. Last year, at least 20 states considered legislation to bar trans athletes from girls and women’s sports, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented most of them from passing.
Idaho’s law, which has become a model for other states, was drafted with the assistance of the Alliance Defending Freedom, according to the Idaho Press.
The Christian religious organization has pushed numerous anti-LGBTQ laws in state legislatures over the last two decades, and it may also be behind legislative proposals in other states as well: Idaho’s bill features language that now appears in legislative proposals in Montana, Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and other states, NBC News reported.
A federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the Idaho law in August after a legal challenge from the ACLU and Lindsay Hecox, a Boise State University student who is a transgender woman seeking to run for the school’s cross country team. The Alliance Defending Freedom appealed the ruling in September, but the preliminary ruling was an early indication that courts are likely to rule laws like Idaho’s unconstitutional.
Placing additional barriers before trans athletes, LGBTQ equality advocates argue, would deny them the physical and mental health benefits participation delivers to a population that likely already competes at lower levels ― and suffers from higher rates of discrimination and mental health issues ― than their peers. Studies show that LGBTQ youth who participate in sports report higher grade point averages and improved self-images.
Instead of new restrictions, states, athletic organizations and the federal government should be pushing to develop guidelines to increase participation in sports among transgender youth, equality advocates argue. LGBTQ advocacy organization GLSEN points to the guidelines adopted by Oregon’s state athletic association, which allow athletes to use locker rooms and participate in sports that match their gender identity and outline a process for resolving eligibility disputes that includes health and LGBTQ youth experts, as a model for other states and governing organizations to follow.
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which became law in 2015 when then-Gov. Mike Pence signed it, and North Carolina’s HB 2, the “bathroom bill” that its legislature approved in 2016, generated national outcry and pushback from major business groups and sporting organizations, including the NBA, NFL and NCAA. The NBA moved its All-Star game from Charlotte over the passage of HB 2, and the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, emerged as one of the loudest critics of the Indiana law before pulling events out of North Carolina.
Opponents of the current bills are pointing to those responses to warn that states that pass them could face similar repercussions: A top athletics official at the University of Montana earlier this month suggested that passage of the law there could cost the state’s universities the opportunity to host NCAA postseason events.
The NCAA, which opposed the Idaho legislation last year, has not said if it would move events from states that pass similar laws. But it said in a statement to HuffPost that it is monitoring states where the bills are proceeding.
“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” the statement said. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The Association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion. The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes.”
In addition to the trans athlete laws, legislatures in several states are also pushing forward bills that would place restrictions on medical care for trans youth. Alabama’s state Senate, for instance, this week advanced legislation that would make it illegal for doctors to provide hormone replacement therapy or puberty blockers.
A similar bill failed in Montana after health experts and pediatricians testified against it, arguing that it sought to punish both young people and doctors for legitimate medical treatments.
“Again, this is not about a real problem,” Oakley said. “It’s about trying to invalidate trans identity.”