Will transgender sports rally conservative voters? Georgia GOP is banking on it

The crowd barked their Georgia Bulldog approval as Herschel Walker bounded to the podium at a recent rally for former President Donald Trump.

“I’m going to give you a soundbite real quick,” the U.S. Senate candidate said with a broad smile. “We need to get men out of women’s sports.”

Welcome to the 2022 Republican primary in Georgia, where transgender sports have taken center stage in the culture wars. The GOP is counting on the issue to not only drive diehard conservative voters to the polls but also to win back some of the suburban moms they lost in the last elections.

The fixation has been fueled by the ongoing controversy over Lia Thomas, a transgender woman swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has shattered records in the pool since she underwent hormone replacement therapy and joined the women’s swim team.

In Georgia, advocates and lawmakers cannot point to a single instance where a transgender girl is playing competitive girls’ sports. And trans advocates accused the GOP of using kids as pawns to score political points, noting that they have higher rates of depression and anxiety.

Still, Republicans pushed through a bill in the final moments of this year’s legislative session that would allow the Georgia High School Association to ban transgender participation in sports. Gov. Brian Kemp is sure to sign the measure, which he frames as an issue of “fairness in sports.”

At the Trump rally late last month, Walker was one of the many GOP candidates who highlighted the issue. They had a friendly audience.

“Girls teams should be all girls,” said Nancy Shadburn, of Cumming. “It’s not fair to those girls that have worked and trained so hard for a boy to come in there and take it away from them.”

“He’s a boy,” she said of Lia Thomas. “That’s what God made him.”

But views on transgender issues can also be nuanced.

A Gallup poll from May 2021 found that a majority of Americans – 66% – support allowing openly transgender people serve in the military. But when it came to sports, those numbers flip-flopped – 62% of those surveyed said transgender athletes should only be allowed to play sports that match their gender at birth.

That reveals a subtlety often missed in heated political discussions on transgender issues. And it raises a question: Can you be supportive of transgender rights generally but still be opposed to transgender kids in sports? The answer isn’t clear.

“What people seem to be responding to is an issue of fairness and justice,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research. “That doesn’t mean they are anti-transgender.”

It’s worth noting that Georgia didn’t go as far as other states, like Arkansas and Tennessee, where legislators passed laws barring physicians from administering hormones, puberty blockers, or gender affirming care, to transgender people younger than 18. And Georgia’s sports measure is far weaker than those passed in other states, which enacted outright bans. But it fits into a larger GOP pattern this year of embracing classroom politics.

Laith Stevenson realized she was transgender in 2019. Before that, she’d run on the boy’s track team at her high school in rural Alabama and then recreationally at Emory University. Over the years, running had helped her cope with stress and also her growing gender confusion.

“Physical activity helped me process things,” Stevenson said.

It would be a shame, she said, if others like her were denied the same opportunity,

Laith Stevenson competed in boy's sports before concluding she was transgender.

Credit: Photo Provided by Laith Stevenson

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Credit: Photo Provided by Laith Stevenson

“Athletics plays a big role in youth development,” Stevenson said. “It helps you form social, skills and build up characteristics like hard work, discipline and teamwork.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay advocacy group, said what many people miss is that the vast majority of kids playing sports will never reach elite levels of competition, as Thomas has.

“These are kids who want to play with their friends,” he said.

The trans sports measure was tacked into a larger bill dealing with how race may be taught in schools. Once Kemp signs the bill, a 10-member committee will be appointed to look at the issue in Georgia’s high schools. Most colleges are governed by NCAA rules, which allow transgender female athletes to compete on a collegiate women’s sports team after completing a full calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.

Stevenson had already graduated when she came to the conclusion that she was trans. Now 26, she said if she had realized that earlier she would have tried to switch the girls’ high school team, but only after undergoing hormone therapy.

“Being in a locker room with boys gave me a lot of anxiety. I did not feel like I belonged there, she said. “If I had been on the girls’ team I think I would have fit in better and felt a deeper sense of camaraderie.”

She said there is one bright side to the whole controversy.

“I’ve never seen so much attention paid to girls’ sport,” she said.