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HARRISBURG — Five female Republican state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would ban transgender students in Pennsylvania from playing women’s sports, the latest in a nationwide wave of legislation advocates say risks the health of trans children and adults.
The bill targets high school and college athletes who were assigned male at birth and play on teams with other girls and women as a means of bolstering gender-based protections under the federal civil rights statute known as Title IX, according to its sponsors.
It is being billed as a response to an executive order President Joe Biden signed in the first hours of his presidency that affirmed the right of trans students to play on teams that represent their gender. Mississippi, South Dakota, and Kansas are just a few of the states to take up or adopt identical bills in recent weeks and months — all with the same or similar titles and no basis in science, pediatrician and geneticist Dr. Eric Vilain told NPR last month.
The Pennsylvania measure’s primary sponsors — state Reps. Barb Gleim (R., Cumberland), Dawn Keefer (R., York), Valerie Gaydos (R., Allegheny), Stephanie Borowicz (R., Clinton), and Martina White (R., Philadelphia) — claim Biden’s order requires transgender girls and women “be permitted to compete on women’s school sports teams.”
This is exaggerated and missing context, per a USA Today fact-check. The order reaffirms and builds on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of “sex” should also apply to gender identity or sexual orientation.
Biden’s order does not address existing rules governing how and when transgender athletes can compete. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, for example, requires transgender women to complete a year of hormone therapy before competing on a women’s team, while the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs junior and high school sports, allows individual principals to decide a school’s policy.
Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto the measure Republican lawmakers touted Monday. But even debating such bills can cause calls to the crisis Trans Lifeline to as much as triple, according to Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“Whenever a group of marginalized people makes huge progress, like this, there’s a huge backlash,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “With increased visibility, you’re also more visible to the people who hate you. Whenever leaders in states say trans people don’t belong it adds fuel to the fire.”
Gleim, one of the Pennsylvania bill’s sponsors, said she was in contact with Olympian Martina Navratilova’s Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, which wants to ban trans girls and women who have gone through puberty from “head-to-head competition” with cisgender female athletes. The group’s members, none of whom are transgender, also want to exclude these girls and women from competing until they undergo hormone therapy for a certain amount of time.
During a news conference Monday in the Capitol, Keefer, another bill sponsor, tied the proposal to social, scholastic, and economic opportunities she argued would be threatened by an influx of trans athletes — though lawmakers pushing identical bills in other states, many spearheaded by ideologically driven groups, have failed to support this premise.
While Gleim said she’s been in touch with school districts in her legislative area, the first-person testimony heard Monday came from a former Connecticut high schooltrack and field athlete named Selina Soule, who filed a lawsuit alleging she missed out on opportunities for titles and scholarships by having to compete against transgender athletes.
Pennsylvania is home to roughly 12,000 transgender people between the ages of 13 and 24, according to a 2017 report by UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy.
“There is no history of trans children beating other children at sports in an unfair way. Zero examples of it,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and a native of the state. “Nobody in Pennsylvania is clamoring to solve this problem because there is no problem. This is just an ideologically motivated attack on children.”
Naiymah Sanchez, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s transgender justice coordinator, added by email: “We are in the middle of a pandemic that has put a significant strain on the mental health of young people. Introducing a bill that would bar trans athletes from participating in sports is simply cruel and speaks volumes about the priorities of these lawmakers who are creating a problem that simply doesn’t exist.”
Gleim said she had not received a commitment from Republican leadership that the bill would receive a floor vote.
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