When 13-year-old Fischer Wells testified against Kentucky’s trans sports ban in February, supporters of the bill wouldn’t look her in the eye as she spoke. “They were covering their faces and looking at their notepads, looking around the room and checking the ceiling for any cracks,” Wells told HuffPost. “I felt like I was the most intimidating thing in the world.”
Looking back, Wells said it’s because she wasn’t what proponents of Senate Bill 83 expected. At the time of her testimony, Wells was the only trans student in Kentucky competing in school sports. She thinks lawmakers were anticipating a “timid” student who would shyly plead with government leaders to let her play sports, but that’s not the kind of kid she is. Wells is intelligent, self-possessed and not afraid to admit she has the “largest ego in the room,” as she said with a laugh. She showed up to the Senate legislative committee hearing that day in a bright pink pea coat zipped all the way up, her short hair frizzy and wild, and told lawmakers the bill was “disgusting.”
Wells played field hockey on the girls team at her Louisville middle school, which she admits wasn’t exactly a team to be feared on the field. She helped restart the school’s field hockey program last year, working with other students to sign up enough classmates to qualify as a team, but they didn’t win a single game. Their best outing as a group was their final match, which ended in a tie.
None of the students or their parents ever complained about Wells playing on the girls team, and yet she won’t be playing field hockey this year. Republican lawmakers in Kentucky forced through SB 83, which bans trans female athletes from girls sports from sixth grade through college, over the veto of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The law went into effect in July, and thus far Wells is the only student affected by it. Last year, she was the only known trans athlete playing sports in the entire state.
Jennifer Alonzo, Wells’ mother, said it has been difficult to see her daughter kept from doing something she loves. The family recently saw the other members of the field hockey team at an award ceremony, and Alonzo said that one of her daughter’s former coaches told her, “We’re sure going to miss Fischer next year.” She wanted to respond, “Not nearly as much as Fischer is going to miss you all.”
“They get to go forward doing the thing that they started with, which is to become a team,” Alonzo said. “That team is not going to include Fischer. Everybody else is going to continue their life, but Fischer is not.”
To date, 18 states across the U.S. have restricted trans students from participating in school sports at the K-12 or collegiate levels. Supporters say these laws are necessary to protect women’s sports from trans athletes dominating the competition, and they often cite Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer who became the first trans woman to win an NCAA championship earlier this year, but the panic over students like Wells playing sports is unfounded. There are very few student athletes playing sports in any U.S. state, and those that are, like Wells, are often the only ones.
According to high school athletics associations and LGBTQ advocacy groups contacted by HuffPost, at least two states found themselves in the same situation as Kentucky.
South Dakota and Tennessee each have had just one trans student play school sports, but in both states, the student was a trans boy. At least five states have not had any recorded cases of trans athletes playing school sports at all: Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
These laws hurt students of all genders, but trans students across the country have found themselves literally singled out by their own government leaders. Instead of focusing on their school work or enjoying the fleeting privilege of being a kid, they have been forced to defend their right to participate in an activity others take for granted. Critics of trans sports bans often say that these bills are a “solution in search of a problem,” but the weight of discriminatory legislation is even heavier for these youth — who are made to feel that they are the problem.
Wells’ father, Brian, said no one really knows how many trans youth are affected by Kentucky’s sports ban because some athletes may not be out in their schools or communities. There could be others who are simply unable to speak up or fight back. Without that chorus of voices behind them, he said, it’s been shocking to watch his state enact a law “visibly affecting only one person: your daughter.”
“We’re trying to get the government to do things every day — to start up the mysterious and inexorable machinery to achieve some kind of end — but they can whirr it up real quick to do this,” he said. “It is enraging that we don’t direct this political will to help people but to punish someone — a young girl, a child. What the actual fuck?”
Fighting To Live
When The Associated Press contacted lawmakers who had introduced anti-trans sports bills back in March 2021, very few were able to name examples of trans athletes in their communities. Despite signing West Virginia’s bill in April, Republican Gov. Jim Justice couldn’t cite any instance in which a trans student had gained a competitive advantage by playing against cis athletes. The lead sponsor of Kentucky’s legislation, state Sen. Robby Mills (R), told the Louisville Courier Journal in May that SB 83 was not inspired by any case from within the state. Neither Justice nor Mills responded to a request for comment on this story.
Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R), lead sponsor of the nation’s first trans sports ban, which was signed into law in March 2020, did not dispute the lack of trans athletes in her state but still insisted it was necessary to ban them from school sports.
“In this progressive war being waged on women, especially in sports, constant misdirection arguments are being created to justify the removal of girls and women in our own sports,” Ehardt said in an email. “Fifty years ago, there were countless arguments used to exclude women from participating in sports because it was for males. Fifty years later, it appears not much has changed. But it is this effort to erase us as women that will strengthen our resolve to continue to pass state legislation to protect our opportunities since it is obvious that the Biden Administration won’t.”
Many states that have passed trans athlete bans already made it extremely difficult for trans youth to play sports, even before enacting laws on the subject. The Louisiana High School Athletics Association (LHSAA) previously mandated that trans students correct their birth certificate to compete in alignment with their lived gender, which LGBTQ advocates considered a “de facto ban.” Peyton Rose Michelle, the incoming director of Louisiana Trans Advocates, said that bar was “basically impossible” to meet.
“To update your birth certificate in Louisiana, you need gender-affirmation surgery,” she said. “That is very uncommon for trans and queer youth across the country.”
Despite the difficulty of competing in alignment with their gender identity, Louisiana lawmakers passed legislation in June forbidding trans females from competing in girls’ and women’s sports at the K-12 and college levels, despite opposition from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, rubber-stamped his state’s similarly worded law in March, even though the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) has had guidelines since 2015 that allow trans students to play on the team that aligns with their gender only after they have completed one year of hormone therapy.
OSSAA and LHSAA confirmed to HuffPost that there were no active trans athletes in Oklahoma or Louisiana when their states’ bills were signed into law.
The Mississippi High School Activities Association did not respond to a request for comment on the story, but Jensen Matar, director of the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program (TEAP), conducted a statewide survey of youth athletes after Mississippi’s trans sports ban was enacted in March 2021. Matar couldn’t find a single case of a trans student competing in athletics, which he said is likely due to the overwhelming discrimination they are facing in their daily lives.
“Trans people, especially trans people in Mississippi, are not in a place to be considering participation in a luxury such as athletics,” Matar told HuffPost. “It might not sound like a luxury to a lot of people, but the trans and nonbinary community suffers ― day in, day out ― in meeting their basic human needs: not being able to find employment, not being granted access to restrooms and schools, not having proper access to health care, and being denied right and left for housing. Trans and nonbinary people are fighting to live, and so it doesn’t surprise me that I couldn’t come across a single trans or nonbinary person who was actively participating in athletics.”
In other states, small numbers of trans students have been playing school sports in accordance with their identities for years with no issue, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from excluding them from competition anyway.
When Chris Paulsen, CEO of the LGBTQIA+ nonprofit called Indiana Youth Group, met with the Indiana High School Athletic Association in 2017 to discuss trans inclusion in school sports, she was told it wasn’t a problem that needed to be addressed because there were no trans kids playing sports in the state. According to Paulsen, that statement wasn’t correct: She brought with her to the meeting a high school sophomore who had been running track and cross-country since she was in the seventh grade. With the support of a select few coaches and teammates who knew about her gender identity, she competed alongside the other girls, and it had never caused an issue.
“In my mind, there is no need for a law because either it’s being worked out among the participants or people are unaware that there are trans kids playing,” Paulsen said.
At the time that meeting was held, Paulsen estimated that she knew of seven to nine other trans youth in Indiana. Those students would now be unable to compete under state law: In May, lawmakers forced through a sports ban after the state’s GOP governor, Eric Holcomb, vetoed the legislation. At the time of the veto override, one of the bill’s key sponsors, Indiana state Rep. Michelle Davis (R), said that HB 1041 was a “commonsense approach to protect and preserve the integrity of girls’ sports.”
“Today, we voted for fairness, opportunity and safety,” Davis said in a months-old statement forwarded to HuffPost through her press team. “This issue stems from Hoosier parents like me who are concerned about our female athletes, and their opportunities to compete, earn top spots and obtain scholarships.”
In Ohio, the number of trans youth playing sports is much smaller. Ember, who asked that her last name not be included in this story, is the only trans girl currently competing in high school athletics in the state, as the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) confirmed to the Ohio Capital Journal. (The organization did not return requests for comment on this story.) Soon to be a senior, she has been playing on the girls’ softball team for two years, where she has found a group of unlikely friends. “We’re all from completely different cliques, but we support each other. We’re there to listen to each other and to help one another.”
Ember has been looking for that kind of camaraderie for years. She was involved in her school’s theater program until the seventh grade, but she stopped performing because listening to the sound of her voice changing triggered her gender dysphoria. “She quit singing, she quit acting and she almost quit talking,” said Ember’s mother, Minna. “Everyone just wants to have at least one place where they feel like they belong. She’s been on the outside most of her life.”
Ohio has yet to enact a trans sports ban, but Ember worries that the state may be on the verge of doing so, taking away the confidence she has worked so hard to rebuild. On the second day of Pride month in June, the Ohio House passed HB 151, one of the nation’s most restrictive bills on trans athletics access. The legislation would require any female student athlete competing in K-12 or college sports to submit a “signed physician’s statement” verifying their sex assigned at birth should their gender be questioned. To meet the requirement, students must undergo a test of their “genetic makeup” and “internal and external reproductive anatomy.”
HB 151, which would apply to both cis and trans athletes, is likely to be heard by the Ohio Senate in November, but it remains to be seen if it has enough support to become law. Senate President Matt Huffman (R) called the medical exam requirement “unnecessary” in June, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine promised to veto an earlier version of the bill last year.
Ember said HB 151 fails to recognize how difficult it has been for her to play sports already. To be eligible to play on the girls’ team, Ember had to wait three years to be able to meet all the requirements, and she has to resubmit for approval every single year. The girls’ softball team at Ember’s school has been forced to play on an “old T-ball field at the grade school” that floods when it rains, Minna said, even though the boys’ baseball team gets two fields at the high school. Last year Ember wore a hand-me-down catchers’ mitt donated by the boy’s squad until her mother invested in a $400 glove for Ember’s birthday, just so she would be able to have one that fit.
Minna believes that if the lawmakers behind HB 151 cared about girls’ athletics, they would fix the problems that her daughter’s team is actually facing. “Our girls have to have fundraisers just to buy helmets, but the boys get brand-new equipment,” Minna said. “Most of these people don’t give a flying flip about girls’ sports.”
Teetering On The Edge
Even more states could be poised to ban trans youth from athletics in the years to come: In 2022, at least 28 states introduced legislation seeking to limit their participation in sports, according to the American Civil Liberties Union legislative tracker. Nine of those bills have been signed into law, and other states are teetering precariously on the edge of joining them. This year marked the second consecutive legislative session in which Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) stopped a trans sports ban from becoming law, but she did so by an ever-narrowing margin. Just three votes prevented lawmakers from overriding her veto.
Trans athletes are being forced to fight these laws themselves, often at very young ages. In a trio of ACLU lawsuits, students and their families have successfully lobbied for injunctions against trans sports bans in their states. In Tennessee, 14-year-old Luc Esquivel was barred from the boys’ golf team as the result of a 2021 law mandating that all trans students compete in alignment with the “sex at the time of the student’s birth.” Eleven-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson wasn’t allowed to try out for cross-country at her middle school after West Virginia’s trans sports ban was enacted last year, and fellow cross-country athlete Lindsay Hecox, who was 19 at the time of Idaho’s ban, had hoped to run track in college before the state’s law made that impossible.
Hecox is now 21 and in her second year at Boise State, where she has been playing club soccer while her lawsuit proceeds through the court system. She finds a strange satisfaction in the fact that she isn’t very good. “It really does show that there’s not some automatic advantage that I have just because I’m trans,” she told HuffPost. “I’m just doing it because I like having people around me who love the same sport as I do.”
Although any given state typically has thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of cis students playing sports, the athletics groups and advocacy organizations contacted for this story didn’t know of another trans student competing in Idaho, Tennessee or West Virginia. A representative of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association said the organization wasn’t aware of any trans athletes playing sports at the high school level, where Esquivel hopes to compete this year as an incoming freshman. Sports associations in West Virginia and Idaho did not respond to requests for comment, but ACLU representatives in both states confirmed to HuffPost that Pepper-Jackson and Hecox were the only cases of which they had heard.
These fights are taking a toll on trans youth thrown into the middle of a national debate at a time they say they should be focused on being kids. “I just want to run, I come from a family of runners,” Pepper-Jackson said in a statement provided by the ACLU. “I know how hurtful a law like this is to all kids like me who just want to play sports with their classmates, and I’m doing this for them. Trans kids deserve better.”
Kris Wilka, a 15-year-old football player, estimated that he has participated in at least 20 media interviews since he testified against a trans sports ban in March 2021. Wilka’s tireless advocacy, which included serving as grand marshal of this year’s Sioux Falls Pride Parade, didn’t stop the state from restricting trans athletics access: Two days after a February GQ profile of Wilka went to print, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) signed a trans sports bill into law. The 2022 bill was similar to legislation she vetoed last year over concerns it would lead to retaliatory actions against the state from groups like the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Wilka has continued to speak out against the law because he knows it’s important, but he admitted that the attention is “uncomfortable.” “People call me a local celebrity. I don’t want to be a local celebrity. I want to be a kid, a 15-year-old kid in South Dakota. I’ve spent two years of my life in the media, and I could have been doing something completely different with those two years.”
Despite fears that Wilka would be affected by South Dakota’s trans sports ban, SB 46 applies only to trans girls playing girls’ sports in the state. He made the high school football team for the 2022 season — making him the state’s only known trans athlete — but had to delay for a year because of health issues. South Dakota Transformation Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group based in Sioux Falls, said in an email to HuffPost that the group is not familiar with any other trans athletes competing in the state, and requests for comment to the South Dakota High School Activities Association were not returned.
Wilka isn’t sure yet whether he’s going to try out again next year. His father, John, said his son had been training hard in hopes of playing the sport that he loves, including going on a specialized diet to build muscle mass before the season. Though he is proud to have a child who fights for what he believes in, John Wilka said their family shouldn’t have to be fighting so hard to begin with. When he thinks back over the past two years, he can’t help but shake his head in disbelief at what he described as “all the wasted effort that these folks put into debating the one child in the state.”
“It’s really a nonissue. People are looking for a problem that’s not there,” he said. “We didn’t set out to be here, but we are. You can either recoil and hide, or you can face it head on and show people by your demeanor, by your bearing and by your love that you should be celebrated.”