Republicans are pushing at least 37 bills nationwide targeting transgender athletes as conservatives open up a new front in the war on trans rights

  • Republicans are seeking to bar transgender youth from playing on teams matching their gender identity.
  • There are at least 37 active bills in state legislatures across the nation targeting trans athletes.
  • The GOP’s attacks have ramped up as President Joe Biden and Democrats seek to expand LGBTQ rights.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

First, Republicans used bathroom bills to go after transgender youth. Now, conservatives have opened up a new front in their assault on transgender rights even as Democrats seek to expand civil rights protections for the LGBTQ+ community.

Republicans in Washington and statehouses around the country have unleashed a barrage of legislation and rhetoric aimed at preventing transgender children from participating in sports that match their gender identity.

Nationwide, at least 37 current state bills aim to curtail transgender athletes from participating in sports using their preferred gender are making their way through state legislatures, according to data provided to Insider by the Human Rights Campaign. Two pieces of legislation — in South Dakota and Mississippi — are on their way to becoming law. 

There are 35 more active bills targeting transgender people in other ways, according to HRC.

And in recent weeks, high-profile political figures including former president Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, a Georgia Republican have used transgender athletes as political punching bags — or punchlines.

To advance this agenda, conservatives argue that allowing transgender athletes to participate on teams that match their gender identities would harm women’s sports, a claim that trans activists say is preposterous.

Legislators and activists who talked to Insider said that the people most affected by the proposed pieces of legislation are children.

“Trans youth are just trying to go to school to learn and play on a team to be with their friends like anybody else,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.  “There’s no reason that elected officials should be attacking young people like that. We should be making it easier to be in school and play on teams these days, not harder.”

And yet when the Associated Press reached out to more than 20 lawmakers and political groups who sought to ban transgender girls from playing on women’s teams, most could not cite an instance where this had been an issue in their state or district. 

The wave of legislation recalls the fights over so-called “bathroom bills,” where lawmakers tried to prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity.

“It is a hundred percent a coordinated strategy by people who are vehemently anti-transgender,” Heng-Lehtinen said.

An all-American problem

While anti-transgender rhetoric is not unique to the US, the “saving women’s sports” rhetoric sports is all-American, said Katy Montgomerie, a trans activist in Bristol, England.

“One of the best ways the gender critical movement has to radicalize the average person on the street is sports,” Montgomerie said.

A new group, known as Promise to America’s Children, has emerged to push back against the Equality Act, which would expand protections for LGBTQ people, NBC News reported. The effort is backed by a coalition that includes the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Family Policy Alliance, and others.

Emilie Kao, who directs the Heritage Foundation’s program on religion and civil society and is involved with the Promise for America’s Children, said that “male bodies are just bigger and stronger and faster and women’s bodies are smaller and weaker and slower.”

It’s an argument repeated by conservatives who insist that transgender athletes endanger women’s sports.

While GOP legislators push bills to “save women’s sports” by banning transgender girls and women, medical professionals are still determining whether any competitive advantage exists for transgender women to begin with.

Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum, a doctor and strength coach, wrote that any attempt to limit trans inclusion in sports with scientific arguments is a pointless exercise, especially given the lack of long-term research on the subject.

“Effectively regulating sports divisions based on sex using science is impossible,” Feigenbaum said. “There is no specific biological characteristic, nor set of characteristics, including genital structures, reproductive organs, or chromosomal arrangement, that can adequately answer this.”

Some bills that have been filed have no real shot at becoming law.

But other recent anti-transgender bills are beginning to see success, such as Mississippi’s S.B. 2536, which was passed in the state legislature and is headed to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk. The bill, which Reeves has vowed to sign, bans transgender girls and men from participating in women’s sports.

Mississippi State Rep. Shanda Yates, a Democrat who opposes the bill, said that the legislation was “without a doubt” a sign of more anti-trans bills to come.

A backlash to growing rights for trans people

Shortly after becoming president, Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s ban on transgender people joining the military and issued an executive order to protect LGBTQ people in schools and healthcare services.

Biden also nominated Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary and a trans woman, as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. Levine — who faced anti-trans questioning during her Senate confirmation hearing — would be in a crucial position to influence transgender healthcare and protections at the federal level.

Reeves, the Mississippi governor, specifically cited Biden’s executive actions when declaring his intent to sign S.B. 2536.

The anti-trans rhetoric grew more heated as House Democrats prepared to pass the Equality Act, which aims to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. The legislation amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to extend protections to LGBTQ people and also prevents individuals and businesses from discriminating against them based on religious grounds. 

Republican critics say the bill would harm women — who they define as people assigned female at birth, rather than all individuals who identify as women — and infringes on their religious liberties.

The Equality Act passed along party lines in the House on February 25 with only three Republicans voting in favor: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Rep. John Katko of New York, and Rep. Tom Reed of New York. Prior to the vote, Republicans took to the House floor to object to the bill.

Greene, who was stripped of her committee assignments in February for her history of anti-Semitic, racist, and conspiracy-theory laden remarks, said on the House floor without citing any examples of real-world harm, that the legislation would endanger girls’ sports and women’s rights. 

She claimed without evidence that “biological males” would be allowed in her daughter’s “locker rooms, they would  be in her showers, they will be in her bathroom, they will be in her hotel room when she travels with her team.”

She later hung a sign outside her office stating that there are “only two genders: male and female” — directly across the hall from the office of Rep. Marie Newman, who has a transgender daughter.

“It’s a gigantic red herring, period, full stop,” Newman, an Illinois Democrat, said of the anti-trans rhetoric from her Republican colleagues. 

A few days later, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, Trump claimed that if transgender women are allowed to participate on teams that matched their gender identity “women’s sports as we know it will die, will end.” 

He then claimed that transgender women were breaking weightlifting records by “a hundred pounds” before balling his hands into fists and miming weightlifting motions while making a “foomf foomf” noise.

Virginia State Del. Danica Roem, a legislator who helped usher in Virginia’s Equal Rights Amendment and Virginia Values Act, likened the GOP push against trans children as similar to the US history of segregation.

“They’re using the same playbook that the segregationists used 60 and 70 years ago,” Roem said, “almost verbatim in some cases, and playing from the same playbook where people said, ‘What’s going to happen if you allow black people to use the same restroom as white people? They’re going to attack us….’ But now they’re doing the same thing, right? They’re trying to make these trans girls out to be Olympic-level weightlifters or something.”

Roem made history in 2017 when she became the first openly transgender person elected to serve in a US state legislature.

‘None of this was ever about fairness’

While some of the dozens of anti-transgender bills filed are applicable to both male and female-assigned-at-birth people, many of them, much like Mississippi’s S.B. 2536, solely focus on preventing transgender women from participating with cisgender women.

Several of the bills are simply titled the “Save Girls Sports Act,” a naming that transgender-rights activists and legislators have referred to as discriminatory. 

One bill, Minnesota’s HF 1657, goes so far as to criminalize transgender women playing or even simply trying out for a women’s sports team.

“None of this was ever about fairness,” Yates said.

“It’s an attempt to grab sort of the headline on this sort of national conservative train and say, ‘Oh, well, I sponsored that there in the city and we moved it forward and we’ve done that,'” Yates added. “It’s in no way attempting to address an actual issue that’s occurring anywhere.”

Transgender advocates say the lawmakers pushing such bills are not making efforts to meet with transgender people and understand their perspectives.

At least one GOP governor, Utah’s Spencer Cox, has pushed back against such bills making their way through state legislatures and has challenged lawmakers to spend time with transgender youth.

“If you have not spent time with transgender youth, then I would encourage you to pause on this issue,” Cox told reporters in February as he anticipated such legislation arriving at his desk. “These kids are, they are just trying to stay alive.”

The Utah bill, which would have prohibited “a student of the male sex from participating in an athletic activity designated for female students,” ultimately failed.

Roem said meetings with trans children and people were vital to passing anti-discrimination laws in her state of Virginia, such as HB 696 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Having that dialogue in that consultation about what specific issues trans people face in healthcare and health insurance coverage was so important for us to get another one of my bills passed,” Roem said. 

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