The Georgia sponsor of a bill to ban sports teams with transgender members from public fields and stadiums says, “We’re seeing a lot of things happening in states across the country and a big part of my campaign promise was to preserve the character of my community.”
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

ANALYSIS: Athletic fields become battlefield over transgender student athletes

A newly elected Georgia legislator has set the stage for what could be an emotional debate over how schools and communities treat transgender student athletes.

Filed by Sharpsburg Republican Philip SingletonHouse Bill 747 states that public fields, stadiums and gyms can’t be used by a sports team with a transgender member. Here is the language of the bill, which Singleton has dubbed the “Student Athlete Protection Act”:

Public and governmental facilities shall not be utilized for athletic competitions in which a person who is not a biological male is allowed to participate in athletic events conducted exclusively for males or a person who is not a biological female is allowed to participate in athletic events conducted exclusively for females...

No county, municipality, or other local government entity shall utilize or permit or allow to be utilized any athletic facility, stadium, field, structure, or other property owned by or under the control of such government entity to be used for athletic competitions in which any person who is not a biological male is allowed to participate in athletic events conducted exclusively for males or any person who is not a biological female is allowed to participate in athletic events conducted exclusively for females. This Code section shall not apply to athletic events in which both biological males and biological females are permitted or allowed to participate.

Georgia High School Assocation policy states: (To read the policy, go here and then scroll to page 16: )

A student’s gender is determined as follows:

(a) Girls may participate on boys’ teams when there is no girls’ team offered in that sport or activity by the school (exception: wrestling). Boys may not participate on girls’ teams even when there is no corresponding boys’ sport or activity. Cheerleading is a coed sport. 

(b) The GHSA will honor a gender determination made by a member school. The GHSA will not make gender identity determinations nor entertain appeals of the member school’s determination. 

(c) The GHSA will attempt to accommodate requests for private restroom or locker/dressing room facilities for students requesting the same at GHSA playoff events or contests provided notice of the request is made as soon as possible to the GHSA office. No student shall be required to utilize the private facilities.

Singleton says his bill fills a void created by the decision of the Georgia High School Association to abdicate responsibility for defining what a “girls’ track team” means.

The policy, says Singleton, leaves parents and players uncertain. “My bill makes sure every student, regardless of race, creed, gender or religion, knows exactly who they are going to be competing against.”

Under his bill, he says, “When an athletic association says a team is for boys or for girls, it means biological.”

How does he define biological?

“Biology is the gender identified at birth. No one is stopping a child from living his life as a female. Athletics is about biology, not about identity, not about politics. Athletics always divides people by physical comparability. It is why we limit middle school football to middle schoolers, why there is a 10-year-old age bracket for wrestling. You can’t be a 12-year-old and compete in an 8-year-old bracket.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, called the bill disheartening, saying in an emailed statement, “The introduction of this legislation is a shameful attack on some of the most vulnerable students, those who identify as transgender. Transgender athletes participate in sports for the same reasons as everyone else - to get and stay healthy, be part of a team, be a part of a sport they live, and build camaraderie with their peers.”

But not all peers are sympathetic. Three high school female school runners in Connecticut filed a Title IX complaint contending they suffer an unfair disadvantage competing against two transgender high school track and field athletes. The complaint seeks to overturn a Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference policy that permits athletes to compete based on the gender with which they identify. Connecticut is among 17 states with such a policy.

One of the transgender athletes, Andraya Yearwood,  issued a statement to the Hartford Courant:

I have known two things for most of my life: I am a girl and I love to run. There is no shortage of discrimination that I face as a young black woman who is transgender. I have to wake up every day in a world where people who look like me face so many scary and unfair things.

I am lucky to live in a state that protects my rights and to have a family that supports me. This is what keeps me going. Every day I train hard — I work hard to succeed on the track, to support my teammates, and to make my community proud.

In their complaint to the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, the three teen runners said competing against athletes who are “biologically male”  creates an uneven playing field and denies them the opportunities that come from winning races, including college scholarships. Runner Selina Soule told CBS News

We all know the outcome of the race before it even starts; it's demoralizing. I fully support and am happy for these athletes for being true to themselves. They should have the right to express themselves in school, but athletics have always had extra rules to keep the competition fair.

Bills similar to Singleton’s have been filed in WashingtonMissouri and Tennessee. 

Tennessee House Bill 1572 mandates that schools receiving public funding require student athletes participate in sports based on the biological sex listed on their original birth certificate. Otherwise, schools risk losing funding.

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Tennessee state Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, said: 

We are seeing more and more transgender athletes competing and posting victories in traditionally gendered sports competitions, and doing so to the detriment of girls and women biologically born female. Boys and men, due to testosterone levels, bigger bone structure, greater lung capacity, and larger heart size, have physical advantages in sports relative to girls and women.

But Bleacher Report delved into this question of advantage, making the point that “a host of genetic factors can give an athlete an advantage, such as fast and slow twitch fibers, height. Environmental and economic factors are at play, too, such as access to training facilities.”

The story -- which you can read here -- notes: 

A level playing field is a fallacy," says Dr. Myron Genel, Yale professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology. He is a member of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission on issues regarding gender identity in athletics.

"There's so many other factors that may provide a competitive advantage," Genel says. "It's very hard to single out sex as the only one."

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.