GOP state lawmakers target trans athletes while claiming to support Title IX

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Transgender sports bans have spread quickly through state legislatures.

Laws that exclude transgender athletes, particularly girls and women, from participating on the teams of their gender in K-12 and college sports have been enacted in 11 states since 2020. Experts on LGBTQ rights, politics, and Title IX say a mix of factors has contributed to the increase in the number of such laws, including ideas spread by anti-trans groups and political leaders that Title IX, which provides protections against discrimination in federally funded education, is under attack; the assertion that separation of athletes by sex assigned at birth is "common sense"; and the perception by some in government that these laws are less harmful than other anti-trans bills. Such bills are now advancing in Oklahoma, Wyoming, Missouri, and Indiana.

Trans young people and their families have spoken out against the sports. In 2021, Rebekah, a trans girl in New Jersey who plays field hockey, was featured in a video produced by the Human Rights Campaign, in which she said, "When we're on the field, my teammates, they just see me as me. They see me as a teammate who they're going to play with, who they're going to win with, who they're going to lose with, and just someone who they're going to work with together."  

Idaho was the first state to pass legislation of this kind, in March 2020. In 2021, similar bills were signed into law in nine states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. In Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas, trans boys and trans men are also banned from playing on the team of their gender. Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem issued a trans sports ban through and executive order in 2021.

In 2022, the first anti-trans law of the year was enacted after the South Dakota Legislature passed Noem's own trans sports ban, which she signed into law on Feb. 1. On March 3, Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a transgender sports ban, tweeting: "Protecting girls sports in Iowa! It's a fairness issue!"

According to Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBTQ rights organization is tracking more than 560 bills across the country that affect LGBTQ people. At least 69 of those bills are transgender sports bans, she said.

GOP lawmakers are promoting bills that prohibit gender-affirming health care for minors; legislation focused on stopping trans people, particularly kids, from using bathrooms and locker rooms for people of their gender; and bills that place restrictions on the mention of LGBTQ people in schools. The Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, signed two bathroom bills into law last year. Arkansas enacted a gender-affirming health care ban for trans minors in 2021, and similar bills are advancing through legislatures in Idaho and Alabama this year. The Florida Legislature passed a bill on March 8 limiting what educators can say about LGBTQ people in the classroom. Montana and Tennessee governors signed bills regulating the mention of LGBTQ content in schools. Some of the laws have been blocked by federal judges from going into effect.

"The opposition to equality has a whole bunch of different things that they have been trying, right? We know that the sports bans have been particularly successful for them over the course of the last three years," Oakley said. "I think some reasons why that message is resonating a little bit better than some of the other messages that they're putting out there are, either they're already really debunked or are so extreme that they just really go beyond the pale even for people who aren't super familiar with LGBTQ issues and particularly trans issues."

She added, "In comparison to these other things that the opposition is pushing, I think the sports bans feel more palatable and less radical to the legislators who are considering them."

Zein Murib, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, whose work focuses on the politics of sexuality and gender, said Americans' relationship to sports may also play a role.

"I think another piece of this that's really important is the ways that people talk about testosterone and masculinity as something that predetermines athletic ability and ways of withstanding criticism and athleticism," they said. "When in reality, sociologists who study sport have tracked the ways that boys receive more resources, more support and training. ... Sports makes what we think we know of masculinity, right? And so I think that again, given the way that this country embraces sport, it's been really successful because it just plays on all of these things that people think they already know, not only about sports, but also bodies and athleticism."

Murib and Oakley both said that racism is an important factor in these anti-trans bills. A story that garnered early media attention involved two Black transgender girls, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, who competed in track and field at Connecticut high schools.

"We see these racialized understandings of who is a proper girl, right, and who deserves to be protected," Murib said.

Elizabeth Sharrow, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said Republican lawmakers, many of whom haven't previously taken a vocal stance on protecting fairness in sports or Title IX, are misrepresenting the purpose of the law.

"They are engaging in a bit of a sleight of hand that suggests that what they're really doing is trying to live out the honest interpretation of Title IX. ... The intent of the law is very clear that Title IX is a nondiscrimination ordinance. You cannot understand these state laws as nondiscriminatory because discrimination on the basis of gender identity is precisely the point," Sharrow said.

Oakley said Indiana may be the next state to enact anti-trans legislation. Indiana House Bill 1041, a trans sports ban, has passed both chambers of the Legislature; Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb now must decide whether to sign the bill, veto it, or allow it to go into effect without his signature. A hate crimes law enacted in the state in 2019 did not include gender identity and sexual orientation, despite Holcomb having pushed for their inclusion. When asked whether the governor has come to a decision on the new bill and how he would square a decision to support it with his past stance, the governor's office told the American Independent Foundation that Holcomb will decide once he receives and reviews the bill.

"It's to keep [trans kids] from signing up for sports, which which means they're not being protected by the state," said G. David Caudill, executive director for Equality Indiana.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.