Wisconsin legislators this week introduced a bill at the Capitol that seek to force schools to ban transgender and non-binary students from participating in sports according to their gender identity.
The bill, misleadingly named “Protecting Women in Sports Act,” would impact public K-12 schools, independent charters, private choice institutions, the University of Wisconsin System and technical colleges and essentially prohibit transgender students from participating in organized sports unless the team was specifically designated as “co-ed.”
Introduced by Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc), the bill’s lead author, the bill closely aligns with almost identical legislation currently being pushed in dozens of state houses across the country. According to the ACLU, so far this year some 28 states have introduced legislation that would prohibit transgender students from participating in sports. There are dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills now pending across the country, including many that go so far as to seek to make it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth.
As in many cases, proponents of the bill are attempting to cast themselves as advocates for women and girls, and opponents as somehow anti-woman, which Rep. Dittrich explicitly did during the March 2 press conference.
“I think if the governor really cares about women, he absolutely should advance this legislation and there should be no reason why it doesn’t go anywhere, unless he’s a sexist,” she said.
Randi Hagen, a Madison resident, transgender woman, and hockey athlete, was clear in her rebuttal: “I am a woman, and this bill does not protect me. I am a woman, and this bill will harm me.”
At a small, pro-trans rally held outside the Capitol to counter the messages at the press conference, the message was unequivocal. Brian Juchems, Co-Executive Director of GSAFE, a statewide group that advocates for LGBTQ students, put it plainly: “Trans girls are girls. Trans boys are boys. Trans athletes benefit from participation in sports just in the same ways that cisgender students do and they deserve to have that access and experience.”
“I was cautiously optimistic that we wouldn’t get bills like this in Wisconsin, knowing that we have a governor who would not stand for it,” said Fair Wisconsin Executive Direcor Megin McDonell, who is also the parent of a transgender teenager. “Obviously, there are people in the Legislature who decided that this is their priority anyway, in spite of the pandemic and the fact that the bill will ultimately be defeated.”
McDonell points out that, just by introducing legislation like this, Republicans are further marginalizing and harming transgender and non-binary people in the state.
“The impact on the trans community is terrible. It sends a terrible message that makes people feel unvalued, unloved, and unwelcome,” she said.
Hagen echoed that sentiment in an interview later that day. “Bills like this make me think politicians like Rep. Dittrich are actively trying to harm people like me. [For] a younger trans woman trying to find a community, or trying to use sports as a healthy outlet, [these bills] are going to demonstrably harm her.”
GSAFE and Fair Wisconsin worked together to organize the last-minute rally once news broke the day before about the bill. McDonell and Juchems say they’ll be doing outreach in the coming days to build a coalition of other LGBTQ and likeminded organizations and individuals to help stand up against the legislation and speak out in support of transgender youth.
Democrats in the Legislature released a statement in opposition immediately following the press conference. In a joint statement from Reps. Marisabel Cabrera, Greta Neubauer, Mark Spreitzer, and Sen. Tim Carpenter, they said, “Today’s Republican attacks on transgender youth and children in Wisconsin continue a deeply disturbing trend of legislators seeking to limit the rights and opportunities of LGBTQ+ youth in their schools. All young people, including transgender or intersex athletes, should have the right and the opportunity to participate in organized, school-sponsored athletics consistent with their gender identity.”
“Instead of attacking kids who just want to play, our Republican colleagues should get to work on COVID-19 relief for struggling Wisconsinites,” the statement continued.
Part of a larger effort
Nationally, as the trans-inclusive Equality Act makes its way through Congress, anti-trans activists are increasing their campaign to either amend the act to remove transgender protections, or defeat it entirely. Many of the bills and the campaigns behind them are being pushed and/or funded by the usual, anti-LGBTQ right-wing groups like ALEC, Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Heritage Foundation.
In a case of strange bedfellows, groups that claim to be in favor of women’s rights often find themselves in alignment (and sometimes direct partnership) with those right-wing organizations when it comes to attacking transgender rights. An ad airing on WKOW featured two well-known anti-trans activists from Madison and Milwaukee and pushed the narrative that the Equality Act needs to be amended to remove its inclusion of trans and non-binary people from protections. The group behind the ad, Women’s Liberation Radio News, has also funded a series of billboards across the country (including one in Milwaukee) that specifically targets trans participation in sports.
“This unprecedented surge of anti-transgender legislation is not being demanded by constituents,” said Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel Cathryn Oakley in a statement. “Legislators in several states have openly admitted that there is no problem happening in their states that needs addressing. We know this because trans-inclusive policies have been in place for the NCAA and the Olympics for years. Lawmakers’ suggestion that student athletes are trying to game the system for competitive advantage is nonsensical and impractical. It simply does not happen. Their goal is to use these states to advance their hateful agenda, and this legislative push is being made without much care for the economic, legal, and reputational consequences these states might face in the wake of their passage.”
The policies Oakley references are instructive. The NCAA has allowed transgender people to participate since 2011, with the stipulation that trans women undergo one year of hormone replacement therapy before they can join. There are no requirements of trans men. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s current rules differ slightly, in that they require one year of HRT for both trans men and women, as well as written certification from both a parent or guardian and a medical professional.
The International Olympic Committee has similarly allowed transgender people to compete since 2004, though with similar restrictions around hormone levels. Despite that, no transgender person has competed at the Olympics. Within the NCAA, no transgender athletes have yet become dominant. Both cases, with over 15 years worth of case study, flatly disprove the current fear mongering around trans athletes somehow taking away opportunities and medals from cisgender competitors.
Several prominent cases of transgender youth fighting for their right to compete in the sport that aligns with their gender identity have come up in recent years, though, part of a larger wave toward greater visibility for transgender people. The existence of trans people is not new, however, with evidence across centuries and cultures of people whose lived experience fits within the trans spectrum. Having common language for and understanding of that experience, as well as greater public awareness, is relatively new.
“We’ve seen progress…and greater awareness, greater exposure to trans people generally and this is the backlash” Juchems observed. “Just like the pushback around racial justice and immigrants rights. It’s this predictable pushback against any progress that actually makes improvements in people’s lives.”