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Trans Kids Are Pawns In Republican Culture Wars

On June 1, the first day of Pride Month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act into law, barring transgender girls from competing in high school sports. In his press conference, DeSantis said, “We believe in the state of Florida in protecting the fairness and integrity of women’s athletics …girls are going to play girls’ sports and boys are going to play boys’ sports,” leaving transgender girls with no sports to play.

DeSantis could not point to a single example in his own state of a transgender girl competing against a cisgender girl in high school sports. Instead, a former Connecticut high school track star, Selena Soule, took the stage to defend the Florida legislation.

During Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing in February, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took the opportunity to focus on girls’ sports — not COVID learning loss, not reopening schools safely, not even the standard conservative education issues of choice and accountability. He decried the fate of cisgendered girls competing against transgender girls in high school athletics.

Sen. Paul has never been a leading champion of girls and women’s rights. Yet, now he is focused on the right of cisgender girls to play sports only against student athletes assigned female at birth. Rand opposed gays in the military and same-sex marriage and opposes the Equality Act. He’s on the record saying that he does not support LGBTQ rights, because he doesn’t believe in rights based on behavior.

Characterizing one’s gender identity as merely chosen behavior, however, is inconsistent with prevailing medical, psychological, ethical, and human rights policies.

Trans sports bans are a solution in search of a problem.

Anti-transgender legislative proposals are one of the weapons of choice in the Republican culture wars — dividing to conquer. Paul is running for re-election to a third term. DeSantis is a likely Republican presidential contender for the 2024 nomination. (On the second day of Pride month, June 2,  DeSantis vetoed legislation passed by the Florida legislature that provided funding for the victims of the Pulse massacre.)

Caitlyn Jenner, now a Republican who ran for governor of California, opposes transgender athletes competing in sports in accordance with their gender identity. Yet, she shamelessly participated in a women’s golf tournament after publicly stating her opposition to transgender girls and women competing against cisgender girls and women.

The history of the movement for LGBTQ rights is rife with examples of advances producing backlashes. Transphobia is not an ideology — it is a sound-bite wedge issue being used by opportunistic politicians, fear-mongering to their right-wing base. Politicians with ambition, including  DeSantis, are fueling an anti-transgender backlash.

Trans sports bans are a solution in search of a problem. In the first four months of 2021, Republicans across the country proposed more legislation aimed at restricting the rights and protections of transgender youth than in any other year (over 80 bills in 30 states).

Enforcement of a sports ban adopted in Idaho was enjoined, with the federal circuit court noting the “absence of any empirical evidence” that the ban was serving a purpose and would likely be found unconstitutional. Selena Soule was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s transgender-inclusive high school sports law. That case was dismissed as moot because the plaintiffs could not point to any evidence of transgender athletes competing, or being likely to compete, against the plaintiffs who were still in high school.

Transgender youth represent about 2% of the population, and an even smaller percentage of them are athletes. The NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, along with many professional and amateur sports leagues, allow transgender athletes to participate in sports in accordance with their gender identity. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that children should play on sports teams that match their gender identity.

“Transgender girls in youth sports” is a touchstone of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. But the problem isn’t girls’ sports, the problem is hate

According to the Center for American Progress, more than a dozen states, including Massachusetts, New York and Washington, D.C. — together home to more than 6.8 million high school students and approximately 42% of transgender high school-age youth — have policies allowing transgender students to participate in school sports, without requirements of medical or legal transition.

“Transgender girls in youth sports” is a touchstone of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. But the problem isn’t girls’ sports, the problem is hate. And the result is fear, isolation, depression, and suicide.

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 42% of LGBTQ youth, and more than 50% of transgender and nonbinary youth, seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The Center for American Progress reported that LGBTQ youth consider suicide at nearly three times the rate of cisgender youth.

LGBTQ youth mental health is the problem that needs a solution. And participation in sports can provide that solution. Inclusive school sports policies have been shown to decrease the risk of suicide and depression for LGBTQ youth, while also increasing their school attendance and grades. Inclusive school policies also promote acceptance and reduce bullying and harassment of LGBTQ youth.

LGBTQ youth are among our most vulnerable. State and federal lawmakers should protect them, not cast them out.

By Julie Allen

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