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Florida bills would stop transgender athletes from playing women’s sports

“This is not about sports, this is about marginalizing and demonizing the transgender community in all aspects of life,” said one transgender advocate.
Published Mar. 15
Updated Mar. 19

TALLAHASSEE — The latest front in the culture wars has made its way to the Florida Legislature.

Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing in school-sponsored girls’ sports, arguing that the integrity of gender-specific competition is at stake. Activists for transgender rights say the legislation is thinly disguised bigotry that purports to solve a problem that does not exist.

“This is not about sports, this is about marginalizing and demonizing the transgender community in all aspects of life,” said Gina Duncan, the director of transgender equality at the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.

Florida is among at least 25 states this year where conservative lawmakers are proposing restrictions on transgender athletes — athletes who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. The lawmakers sponsoring two of the bills, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, point to high-profile controversies over gender participation in sports. For instance, Stargel noted, the International Olympic Committee has rules that bar transgender women with high levels of testosterone from competing in women’s sports.

Related: Florida House backs ban for transgender female athletes

But neither Stargel nor Tuck could point to any instance where a transgender athlete unfairly impacted a middle school, high school or college athletic competition in Florida. Activists say there are none. The bills also apply to intramural competition, including elementary schools.

In interviews, Stargel and Tuck said even if there hasn’t been an issue yet, their bills will keep the playing field level between boys and girls.

“I don’t think we should wait until there is a problem to have a policy,” Tuck said.

Both lawmakers pushed back on the idea that their legislation was aimed at hurting the transgender community.

“I’m not intentionally trying to harm any child that wants to participate. I’m just trying to make sure that it’s fair,” Stargel said. “We recognize that there are some physiological differences in strength between men and women. That’s why we have women’s sports versus men’s sports.”

Olympic gender standards would apply

Stargel’s bill, Senate Bill 2012, would allow transgender girls to compete in girls’ sports, but only if they are able to adhere to the same testosterone standards that the Olympics currently have. (The Olympic guidelines themselves are set to be revised after the Tokyo games.)

Jon Harris Maurer, the public policy director for Equality Florida, said it’s “ludicrous” to impose Olympic-level standards on, for example, a middle school sports competition.

Tuck’s bill, House Bill 1475, goes further than Stargel’s, imposing a blanket ban on transgender athletes participating in women’s sports. The legislation would make a health care provider verify a student’s birth sex in the event of a dispute; one way they may do so is to check a student’s “reproductive anatomy.”

The most controversial parts of Tuck’s bill are nearly identical to a law passed in Idaho last year. That law, the first of its kind in the nation to be enacted, was drafted with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group. In August, a federal court temporarily struck down the law; that decision is being appealed by state officials.

The Florida High School Athletic Association, the state’s official governing body for interscholastic competition, allows students to participate in groups that align with a student’s “gender identity and expression, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate.” Under the organization’s policy, students have to notify the association about their gender identity before the start of a given sports season, and list any medications they may be taking. A health care professional also has to verify a student’s gender identity.

These rules are appropriate, and make further restrictions unnecessary, Duncan said. The notion that a student would lie about their gender identity to gain a competitive advantage is belittling to the struggle transgender people go through to be their authentic selves, she argued.

“Transgender people who transition want to live an authentic and truthful life,” Duncan said. “This isn’t about ‘I just want to present as a woman today to win a track meet.’ "

Policies set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs competition for nearly 1,100 colleges and universities, say transgender women can only compete in women’s sports after taking testosterone suppression medication for one year. Transgender women who aren’t taking hormone medications can’t participate in NCAA women’s sports.

Issue stirred up at CPAC

The issue reached the front lines of the conservative culture war at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, where former President Donald Trump riled up a crowd of supporters by saying that Democrats are “pushing policies that would destroy women’s sports.”

“Young girls and women are incensed that they are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males,” Trump said.

Since that speech, Mississippi’s governor has signed a bill into law that would impose restrictions on transgender athletes. South Dakota’s may soon follow.

In Florida, Tuck’s bill will be heard for the first time on Wednesday by the House Secondary Education and Career Development Subcommittee — a sign of possible momentum for the legislation. Stargel’s bill has yet to gain that kind of traction, but it still could. Lawmakers are not even halfway through the 60-day 2021 legislative session.

Tuck’s bill also has the support of at least one notable House Republican: Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the chamber’s Education and Employment Committee — another of the committees to which Tuck’s bill has been referred. In a February release, Latvala said the bill was protection against the “woke movement reversing every advancement for equality of access for women’s sports under Title IX.”

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, an ultra-conservative member of the Florida House, is sponsoring the third measure, House Bill 935. Among many things, it would make it a crime for health care practitioners to perform any type of sex-change procedure on a minor. If they do, they could face up to a year in prison, according to the bill.

His bill also would prohibit transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports. In a recent political ad announcing a bid for Congress, Sabatini touted that portion of the bill.

“It’s a very, very, very popular issue amongst Republicans,” Sabatini, of Howey-in-the-Hills, said in an interview on Thursday. He added that “the vast majority of Floridians are very concerned with the attacks on gender as a category” and that people are concerned about “genders being destroyed by a politically correct society.”

A recent public opinion survey by Morning Consult showed that limiting transgender participation in women’s sports is, in fact, a winning issue for Republicans. The survey, which was conducted from March 6 through 8, asked nearly 2,000 registered voters about the issue. A full 53 percent said they strongly or somewhat support banning transgender athletes from women’s sports. Just 32 percent said they did not support such a ban.