The latest national litmus test for conservative politicians: whether they will ban transgender women and girls from playing on female teams, especially in high school.
In more than 25 states, new laws have been proposed that define gender as an athlete’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth. Governors in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi signed transgender girl bans this year. West Virginia and Kansas passed bills Friday. Similar legislation has been introduced in Georgia, including one this session that passed out of committee, but didn’t come up for a full vote.
The rationale for these bans is that transgender females will dominate girls’ sports. “This will allow more young girls to achieve their dreams without worry they may be competing against those who have insurmountable genetic advantages,” said Georgia State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, sponsor of the “Save Girls Sports Act.”
The Georgia High School Association currently honors gender determinations made by the schools.
“Forcing girls to play against biological males limits the ability of young women in the state of Georgia to win competitions, receive scholarships and to achieve the highest levels of success in their sports,” said Harbin at a March hearing in the Senate Education and Youth Committee.
As in states with copycat bills, no female Georgia athlete has lost a championship or scholarship to a transgender competitor, leading critics to charge the bills are solutions to nonexistent problems. Harbin maintains the issue could arise someday and the state “should get ahead of this and deal with it.”
A closely watched battleground on transgender girls and sports has been South Dakota, where the governor attempted to appease conservatives in the state without alienating a broader base necessary for a possible national race someday. So, after Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed South Dakota’s Save Girls Sports bill, she announced two executive orders to “protect fairness” in K-12 and college athletics, including requiring females in K-12 sports to produce an affidavit or birth certificate showing they were born female.
Last week, Arkansas went even further: Legislators there overrode the governor’s veto of the nation’s first law prohibiting gender-affirming medical treatments and surgeries, including gender-reversible puberty blockers and hormones, for transgender minors.
In North Carolina, along with prohibiting “gender transition” procedures for anyone under the age of 21, the proposed Youth Protection Act would mandate that teachers inform parents immediately if any student “demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor’s sex.” The legislation does not spell out the incongruences, forcing kindergarten teachers to wonder if they must report Emma for playing with Tinkertoys or Emmett for drawing one too many rainbows.
The catalyst for these anti-trans youth campaigns is a Connecticut case where three high school female runners filed a Title IX complaint in 2019, contending they suffered an unfair disadvantage competing against two transgender high school track and field athletes and lost opportunities for state titles and college scholarships.
The complaint and a lawsuit by the students target a Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference policy that permits athletes to compete based on the gender with which they identify. Connecticut is among 16 states with such a policy.
The outrage has focused on the losses the three Connecticut runners experienced when they competed against the two trans students. However, seldom noted is that the trio also lost to faster athletes who were born female. And some of those faster runners also beat the two transgender high school athletes. Sports research has found many factors besides sex can give athletes a competitive advantage, including maximal oxygen uptake, thermal regulation and fluid homeostasis.
Despite predictions the three would lose college opportunities because they fell behind in track and field rankings, one of the complainants who graduated from high school, Selina Soule, is running track at the Division I level. On the other hand, Andraya Yearwood, one of the trans runners who also graduated from high school, is not running track in college due to the fallout and bullying.
During a hearing on the Georgia bill, Jen Slipakoff, the mother of a 13-year-old transgender girl, told the Senate Education and Youth Committee that her daughter shared a close bond with her friends on her lacrosse team. Her daughter is in seventh grade, she said, and “just clears 4-and-a-half feet and weighs 60 pounds.”
“Her teammates have been her friends since preschool. Pulling her from this team of her cherished community and sending her to play with the boys would be nothing short of traumatic and cruel,” Slipakoff told the committee. “It is not dangerous for my daughter to be on the same sports team as her girlfriends. She’s not taking the spot of another more deserving girl, as though my daughter deserves less than. She’s not a threat.”
“I am left wondering if she doesn’t belong on the boys’ team and she doesn’t belong on the girls’ team, where exactly do you think she belongs? Can you tell me she belongs somewhere? Or do you think she doesn’t belong anywhere?” said Slipakoff, “because that is what passing this bill will tell her.”
A recent letter signed by more than 500 college athletes to the NCAA urged the organization to take a stand against bills that subject “all women athletes to potential invasive gender verification tests while also effectively banning transgender women athletes from competition.”
The letter said: “Trans youth will not be able to play and excel at the sports they love, causing a ripple effect that will eventually remove an integral element of the diversity of college sport. Failure to speak up now will harm current and future athletes, perhaps irreparably. ... All athletes deserve to compete. All athletes are worthy of protection. No athlete should feel unsafe being who they are.”
In its own search for culture war fodder, the Georgia Senate Ed Committee passed Harbin’s bill in a 5-3 vote even while acknowledging there are no issues in Georgia. Lawmakers agreed a law ought to be in place to protect “biological girls” in the future. Senate leaders never brought the controversial bill to the floor for a vote.
Opponents of the measure said lawmakers are morally compelled now to protect transgender students who have higher rates of suicide, anxiety and depression. Roland Behm of the Georgia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention cited a student health survey that showed approximately 1 in 20 Georgia middle and high school students attempted suicide in the past 12 months. “For transgender students, the CDC reports that number is 1 in 3 who attempted suicide,” he said. Sports participation provides students with opportunities to develop a sense of belonging, connectiveness and contribution, all of which are protective shields against suicide, he said.
A statement released Friday by 115 civil rights groups, legal groups, medical associations and organizations for women and girls condemned the surge in trans youth legislation, saying, “Transgender youth, like any young people, thrive when they are treated with dignity and respect. Being a kid is hard enough. We don’t need politicians making it even harder for kids who are transgender and singling them out for increased bullying and harassment.”
“Senate Bill 266 would establish state-sanctioned bullying of some of our most vulnerable children,” said Behm. “Bullying is cowardly. Let’s let all our children play.”