“They assume we don’t exist”
Senate bill banning transgender girls from girls’ sports advances
Cat Salemi, clinical mental health counselor, said the purpose of the bill is to discriminate against trans girls and exclude them from participating in sports. (Photo: Screen grab legislative hearing)
A bill that would prohibit transgender girls from playing girls’ sports in middle and high schools in North Carolina cleared its first hurdle Tuesday, passing the state Senate Education/Higher Education Committee.
Out of the approximately 180,000 active student athletes in the state, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association says, only about 15 are transgender.
“That’s too high,” said Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell) of the number Tuesday.
Sawyer, one of the bill’s many Republican sponsors, said transgender young women — whom she referred to as “biological men” throughout Tuesday’s hearing — are unfairly taking victories, championships and scholarships from young women.
As a young female athlete herself, Sawyer said, she had to deal with challenges male athletes never did — including severe menstrual cramps and ill-timed periods that came on competition days.
“We haven’t talked about how hard it is for a female athlete to perform, just and get out on the floor and play through biological issues we all face as females,” Sawyer said. “So now, when we do those things as female athletes, then we have someone whose feelings are hurt who doesn’t have to go through those things, who is naturally stronger than us.”
“So what you’re telling me as a female athlete not only do I have to deal with those embarrassing moments – figuring out my body and learning how to play this sport,” Sawyer said. “I have to work out twice as hard and run twice as longer, and be twice as strong as someone physically just wakes up and feels like they can come in and take away my championship that I worked my entire life for, take away my ribbon I have been working for and take away my dignity that sports has given me.”
“This bill is not about being anti-trans,” Sawyer said. “It’s about being pro-woman.”
Cat Salemi, clinical mental health counselor from Durham, testified Tuesday that for the transgender clients they treat, it’s about something else entirely.
“This law’s clear purpose is not to protect or support women and girls,” said Salemi, who is non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns. “But instead to discriminate against trans girls and exclude them from participating in sports. Laws like this send a clear message to trans people that we are not accepted, not wanted and not welcome.”
“I can tell you from experience that being accepted as your true self is a life changing experience,” Salemi said. “I have seen my trans clients slowly light up as they get to express who they really are. Conversely, I have spent hours and hours with those same clients talking about the fear of violence, discrimination and hatred they face. I wish I could tell them that if they came out, they would be loved and accepted for who they are. Bills like this prove they have good reason to be afraid.”
After the hearing, Salemi said the bill’s supporters seemed blithely dismissive of what it means to the ever-growing number of transgender people to be told that their identities aren’t recognized, and to have the denial of their very existence codified in law. Saying a transgender girl can still play sports but must do it as a boy, on a boys’ team, in a boys’ locker room, denies some very basic realities about transgender people’s lives, Salemi said.
“Their talking points are all about cisgender girls,” Salemi said. “They assume we don’t exist.”
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, executive director of Freedom Center for Social Justice, spoke in opposition to the bill Tuesday – but beyond its substance, she scolded lawmakers for their political opportunism.
“I first want to say how very predictable this body is,” Rawls said. “I did not know how it would come, but you are right on schedule with your submission of this anti-trans bill. Every election cycle, members of this chamber attack the most vulnerable to build wedges and stir their political base. After the election cycle is over, miraculously, the supposed threats that they should care about are put away until the next election cycle.”
North Carolina isn’t alone in that cycle.
Science, history and politics
Twenty-one states have now banned transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identities. Like most of the bills in those states, S631 states “a student’s sex shall be recognized based solely on the student’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
That’s a far different standard than most sports organizations have used for years — some of them decades.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, said transgender girls competing on school teams “effectively spells the end of women’s sports.”
Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance), chairing the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee hearing Tuesday, echoed those sentiments.
Young girls don’t just have to work twice as hard to compete with transgender athletes, she said.
“In too many instances, no matter how hard she works, no matter how hard she trains, no matter how hard she tries, because there is a biological difference she will not ultimately be able to win against somebody who has had the benefit of natural testosterone coursing through their body,” Galey said.
Katie Jenifer, an attorney and mother of a transgender daughter, called that “ridiculousness.”
“Trans athletes have participated in sports since the 70s,” Jenifer told lawmakers in Tuesday’s hearing. “There’s no mass takeover of sports. It would have happened in 40 years, if so.”
Though debate remains and continues to evolve, the scientific consensus has led major sports organizations like the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission to draw up their own guidelines allowing transgender athletes to compete alongside other athletes of the gender with which they identify. Most of those policies involve proof of transition treatment, including any hormone therapy and accounting for testosterone levels.
The International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to compete at the highest level of international athletic competition since 2003. The NCAA has had a policy on inclusion of transgender athletes since 2011.
None of those organizations use the standard set forth in S631 (“reproductive biology and genetics at birth”). That standard had, until the recent wave of new legislation, been widely abandoned since U.S. and international courts began ruling against its use in the late 1970s in favor of more scientifically sound policies.
Renée Richards, the openly transgender professional tennis player who successfully sued to compete in the U.S. Open in 1977, is a key historical example of the problem with oversimplifying the competitive advantage transgender women are supposed to have.
Richards transitioned after age 40, having already reaped all of the lauded physical advantages of male puberty. But after winning the right to compete and enduring protests that her inherent biological advantages would give her insurmountable advantages, Richards and her doubles partner Betty-Ann Stuart were defeated by two cisgender women, Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove.
Richards would go on to oppose transgender women competing in women’s sports unless, like her, they had gender confirmation surgery — an opinion that reflects a persistent controversy even within the transgender community.
But reality has continued to dog the persistent conservative narrative of transgender women as inherently superior ever since Richards’s legal win and athletic loss.
Though the Olympic Games have used evolving trans-inclusive participation policies for nearly two decades, no transgender female athlete has yet to win a medal. In 2021 New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first transgender female athlete to compete at the Olympic level. Her turn in the spotlight lasted just ten minutes as she failed in her first three lifts.
No transgender athletes now dominate high school, collegiate or professional sports leagues with transgender inclusion policies, in the U.S. or internationally. Despite that, political pressure has led some sports organizations to refine or reverse their inclusion policies. Last year FINA, the world governing body of competitive swimming, effectively banned transgender women from competing in elite women’s competitions. The move came after a transgender woman, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, became the first known transgender person to win a Division I national title.
A new political environment
The conservative push to exclude transgender women from women’s sports isn’t new. It isn’t even new to North Carolina.
Two years ago, a similar bill was filed and even got a hearing, but Republican legislative leaders weren’t willing to go to bat for it. That bill was met with heavy resistance from students, parents, doctors and medical groups as well as youth, collegiate and professional sports teams and associations.
Ultimately, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore dismissed the proposal as a solution in search of a problem, saying transgender athletes competing in North Carolina wasn’t an issue. The same day Moore moved to bury the bill in the House Rules Committee, Apple Inc. announced it would open an east coast campus in the Triangle, bringing more than 3,000 jobs to the area in the next ten years. Apple and its CEO Tim Cook, who is gay, have been strong advocates for the LGBTQ community, specifically decrying bills that target LGBTQ youth.
Moore denied negotiations over the campus and its announcement played any part in the bill being shelved in 2021. It isn’t yet clear whether the diminished threat of a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper will make the difference in this new round of trans-centered legislation, but the proposals could be viewed negatively by businesses with which the state wants to maintain good relationships.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) warned passing anti-LGBTQ bills doesn’t make any more sense now than it did then — from an ethical or a business perspective.
“Frankly, there’s a reason we’re not Texas or Florida,” Chaudhuri said. “I don’t want to be Texas and Florida.”
Chaudhuri pointed out that Republican Governors in other states — including Indiana, North Dakota and Utah — have vetoed similar bills. Chaudhuri quoted Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who said that though there was much he didn’t understand about transgender issues, he knew how to make such a decision.
“When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy, and compassion,” Cox said.
Sawyer, who visibly laughed during some of her Democratic colleagues’ comments in Tuesday’s hearing, told Chaudhuri in response that she was a North Carolina lawmaker concerned with North Carolina law.
The environment for lawmaking in North Carolina has changed significantly since a similar bill died without a floor vote two years ago. First, Democrats took losses in the last election, reducing their ability to sustain a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper to just one vote in the House. Then, earlier this month, Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) switched parties from Democrat to Republican, giving the GOP a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers.
S631 now moves to the Rules committee, where it will need a favorable vote to move to a floor vote. The House version of the same bill, H574,will get a hearing in the Judiciary I Committee Wednesday. A version of the bill will need to make the May 4 “crossover” deadline — being passed from one chamber to the other — to have a chance at becoming law. If it does, it will likely set up a veto fight for which Democrats are not nearly as prepared as they were two years ago.
Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, said the new political environment is undeniable. But as consideration of a raft of anti-LGBTQ bills proceeds, she hopes lawmakers will look beyond politics.
“I hope people will look beyond the politics, look beyond the numbers and will see this as the mean-spirited attack that it is,” Johnson said. “And I hope we’ll have a united front among progressive legislators on this issue.”
But are there enough progressive legislators remaining in the General Assembly to make the difference?
“That is the question,” Johnson said. “That is definitely the question.”
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