(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)
America’s slow journey toward equity and realizing the ideals first written in its founding documents is fraught with racial divides, gender inequality, and violence against LGBTQIA communities rationalized by scientific discrimination.
In Harrisburg last month, Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee continued that long, brutal tradition.
“The only people who benefit if HB 972 isn’t passed are males,” Republican Rep. Barbara Gleim of the state’s 199th Legislative District said in a statement that made liberal use of the term “biologic males” — discriminatory code for transgender women and girls. “Without HB 972, all girls are harmed, including those who identify differently.”
Earlier this year, Rep. Gleim, Philadelphia-area Rep. Martina White, and several other Republicans in Harrisburg joined scores of GOP-led legislatures across the country in sponsoring a bill that discriminates against transgender student-athletes based on their assigned sex at birth.
HB 972, dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” defines women solely on the basis of “reproductive organs, biology, or genetics assigned at birth.” Legal experts, like those at the Women’s Law Project, oppose the bill, arguing the legislation violates state and federal laws and constitutions.
WLP joins a score of activist organizations and the state’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus — which includes Democratic Reps. Brian Sims, Malcolm Kenyatta, and Jessica Benham — in denouncing HB 972 as discriminatory. Opponents of the legislation call it a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.
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More urgently, despite the rhetoric of fairness adopted by the bill’s proponents, the circus surrounding HB 972 creates unsafe spaces for transgender students already facing increased rates of bullying, depression, and learning loss caused by those who choose to misgender them.
Efforts to push the bill forward in the Commonwealth kicked into high gear in early August, when the House Education Committee convened a hearing with area experts, student-athletes, and doctors whose testimonies diverged sharply.
The August 4 testimony began with Dr. Gerald Montano, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Montano, a board-certified pediatrician with almost a decade’s worth of experience offering gender-affirming care to transgender and gender-diverse youth, made clear to those in attendance that transgender girls are girls.
“Transgender girls are not boys, especially transgender girls who elect to go through puberty suppression and gender-affirming hormone treatments leading to significant physical and physiological differences,” Dr. Montano told the committee.
Dr. Gregory Brown, a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney — who has traveled to various state legislatures supporting similar bills — testified that in his opinion human experience and thousands of research studies show that “biological differences” give male athletes an advantage.
Following the hearing, Rep. Gleim summarized the day’s events in a news release titled “Fairness in Women’s Sports Hearing Shows Significant Male Advantages in Athletics Not Erased by Hormone Regimes.”
“There was a student who spoke [at the hearing] who said that from where she sits, it’s bullying,” said Amal Bass, director of policy and advocacy at WLP’s Philadelphia office. “That what these lawmakers are doing is bullying, and that really resonated with me.”
The battle to exclude transgender athletes isn’t about science
Science shows that gender identity is more complicated than man, woman, boy, girl, penis, vagina, making a term like “biological male” almost meaningless.
While middle school curricula teach people that females have XX chromosomes and males have XY chromosomes, the world creates a diverse array of beautiful people with a multitude of gender identities, not a two-way street labeled male and female..
“Biological sex is far more complicated than XX or XY (or XXY, or just X),” says a 2019 piece in Scientific American. “XX individuals could present with male gonads. XY individuals can have ovaries.” Further, the article states, “Secondary sex characteristics penis, vagina, appearance, behavior — arise later, from hormones, environment, experience, and genes interacting. […] The science is clear and conclusive: sex is not binary, transgender people are real.”
But the battle over transgender student-athletes playing sports isn’t about science so much as it’s about internal fears and a societal history of white supremacy.
a.t. furuya, a queer, transgender, Japanese American person who uses they/them/their pronouns, reminds people that the student-athlete conversation began a few years back with two Black transgender girls running track and field in Connecticut. Conversations about anti-trans bills go hand-in-hand with discussions about anti-Blackness, furuya said.
“People didn’t just say, ‘oh, trans people have an unfair advantage,’” they said. “This is the conversation that has been happening against Black women in sports since Black women have been in sports.”
furuya is the senior youth programs manager at GLSEN, which is a national nonprofit focused on LGBTQIA inclusion at K through 12 schools. They are also the program manager for the organization’s Changing the Game program, which offers physical education teachers the necessary resources to create an inclusive space for LGBTQIA youth.
And furuya is an on-the-field expert, too, having coached track and field for 10 years at their alma mater.
According to furuya, talk about anti-transgender student-athlete bills began to enter the public sphere a short time after the 2016 election, when the push for discriminatory “bathroom bills” began to die down. While the issue is nothing new for the LGBTQIA community — transgender people have experienced bullying, discrimination, and violence for decades — social media gve it visibility.
In 2021, lawmakers across the country introduced around 25 bills similar to Pennsylvania’s HB 972, with another two dozen or so targeting transgender people in other ways.
“People look at those white people who were [historically] trying to keep Black folks from desegregating in school, and they’re like ‘that wasn’t me — I would never have been that person,’” furuya said. “Yet here they are, being those folks, yelling and screaming at these kids for trying to live their truth.”
That “screaming and yelling” — which comes from both peers and adults otherwise tasked with creating safe spaces — is only the tip of a sustained bullying campaign that has genuine, consequential effects on the mental health and well-being of transgender students across the country.
In 2019, GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey found that almost 90% of LGBTQ+ students heard negative remarks about transgender persons. A little over 40% of respondents said such remarks came often or frequently. Yet, the survey found that only 10% of school districts had policies to protect those students.
Bullying, harassment, and threats or acts of violence make three-quarters of all transgender youth feel unsafe at school. Another 70% said they would avoid bathrooms because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Some go so far as to refrain from eating or drinking at school to avoid feeling unsafe.
Such efforts often result in unintentional physical and emotional self-harm, including weight loss, urinary tract infections, mental exhaustion, and depression.
Over and over again, GLSEN’s research found that bullying and discrimination with intent to harm transgender and nonbinary persons leads to learning loss. Targeted students are more likely to miss school, face excessive discipline such as detention and suspension, drop out with no path to higher education, and enter the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We know our students are more successful and more likely to graduate if there is supporting educators at school,” furuya said.
Opponents say bill is harmful, and in violation of state and federal law
But campus bullying is now supplemented at the national level by state legislators hoping to create a wedge issue that will excite the voting base.
The Women’s Law Project is a nonprofit public interest legal organization founded almost 50 years ago to defend and further the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQIA people in Pennsylvania. In August, the group wrote a powerful letter to the House Education Committee opposing HB 972, denouncing it as discriminatory and arguing that it violates state, federal, and constitutional law.
The bill attempts to solve a nonexistent problem while promoting harmful stereotypes about gender, noted the letter, which was signed by Bass and her colleague from Pittsburgh, Susan Frietsche.
According to Bass, HB 972 uses circular, nonscientific logic to define biological differences between men and women. “[The bill] doesn’t specify the means by which biological sex using that definition would even be determined to then deny opportunities to people who don’t fit the definition,” she said.
In the letter, Bass noted that HB 972 would cause harm to transgender student-athletes in violation of state and federal laws. Discriminating against persons in an educational setting based on an arbitrary designation such as “biological sex” would go against Title IX, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act. The Supreme Court and various other governing bodies have found that discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation under these laws is prohibited.
In addition, Bass and WLP argue that HB 972 would violate a slew of local ordinances protecting the rights of transgender persons, along with Pennsylvania’s Equal Rights Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Aside from that, Bass said, legislators based the bill on pure gender stereotypes.
“There does seem to be an assumption in the bill that if you allow people who don’t meet the definition that these lawmakers have of who is a woman or a girl, that you’re going to then displace people that do meet the definition in the lawmakers heads of who is a woman or a girl,” Bass said. “The mere fact that they are defining these terms or the idea of who meets that definition in a certain way, that is a stereotype in and of itself.”
The state’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus condemned HB 972 in a statement this past August, with Sims calling it another Republican effort to discriminate against LGBTQ+ youth under the guise of fairness.
Generocity contacted the offices of Reps. Gleim and White for a response to GLSEN’s and WLP’s assertions about HB 972. White’s office did not respond: Gleim’s office thanked Generocity for reaching out, but declined to otherwise comment.
As the House Education Committee looks to reconvene its work on HB 972 at the end of September, furuya thinks the legislators supporting the bill need to be held accountable.
“When hundreds of thousands of people are dying in the United States and to say, ‘oh, you’re losing your job, oh, you don’t have food, [but] we’ve got to focus our attention on these trans kids and keep them from playing sports’ — I’m so embarrassed for [these legislators],” furuya said.
“I know I’m not the only one who’s like ‘this is your priority?’”
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