Pa. Republicans join nationwide push to ban transgender girls from women’s sports

Originally published April 5, 2021 for The PLS Reporter.

Pennsylvania Republican legislators are among the latest in the country to pursue legislation that would bar transgender girls from participating in women’s sports, with the introduction of House Bill 972 on Monday.

At a press conference April 5, Reps. Barb Gleim (R-Cumberland), Martina White (R-Philadelphia), Valerie Gaydos (R-Allegheny), Dawn Keefer (R-York) and Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton) introduced the legislation, which they are calling the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”

The bill, which does not yet have formal language, would require students in public schools to play on sports teams that correspond with their sex assigned at birth, regardless of their gender identity, and allows students to file a lawsuit if they feel they were “deprived” of an opportunity due to the presence of a trans athlete.

“Having separate teams for men and women is a time tested way to ensure that women have the opportunity to showcase their talents and be champions,” White said, as she and the other Republican sponsors made the claim that allowing trans girls onto women’s sports teams would push out cisgender girls.

Preston Heldibridle, a State Policy Associate for the Pennsylvania Youth Congress who himself is trans, said that HB 972 speaks to an issue that does not exist organically in Pennsylvania.

“Ultimately I see this as a ploy for political points at the expense of young trans Pennsylvanians,” he said. “Inclusion is being made out to be something new and scary, but trans students have already been participating in school sports for years without issue.”

Since 2014, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association bylaws have included language that allows mixed gender sports participation in certain circumstances, and in the case of students whose gender is “questioned” or “uncertain,” allows school principals to determine the student’s gender for the sake of sports team eligibility.

That provision has helped more than two dozen Pennsylvania schools to enact trans-inclusive and affirming policies with regards to sports participation. Using model policy from the Pennsylvania Youth Congress — policy that goes beyond sports alone to create “safe” and “supportive” environments for trans youth — districts allow trans students to participate on the sports team that aligns with their identity and, if questioned, directs principals to determine a student’s gender in line with how the student identifies.

Gleim said Monday that under her legislation, districts would be forced to change that practice.

Lawmakers from Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus responded to the bill’s introduction, echoing trans advocates in saying that the bill is a ‘solution looking for a problem.’

“What’s further baffling is the claim that this legislation would advance or ensure fairness in women’s sports. I would advise the sponsors of this legislation to consider pulling this bill and instead introduce legislation that has substance and positive impact,” Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) said. “The real unfairness in women’s and girls’ sports is rooted in systemic underfunding, fewer resources, unequal pay, unbalanced media coverage and sexual harassment. ‘Funny’ how those initiatives are not included in any capacity in their sham bill.”

Gleim said that she worked with the recently created Women’s Sports Policy Working Group in crafting HB 972. The group claims to seek a “middle ground” between cis women and trans women’s sports participation, but has been criticized by trans advocates for using transphobic language and supporting legislation that does not actually meet the group’s purported “middle ground” goal.

The lawmakers introducing the bill Monday did so under the title of fairness for women and did not explicitly refer to trans people at all throughout the press conference, choosing instead to use language that misgenders trans girls and making the claim that trans women will “replace” cisgender women in sports. Their claims largely center on the idea that anyone assigned male at birth is fundamentally stronger and faster than anyone assigned female at birth.

recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that trans women do retain some level of increased run times over cis women following two years of hormone replacement therapy, though their push-up and sit-up endurance decreases to the same level as cis women. That study, however, looked at adult individuals undergoing hormone therapy, and does not speak to strength differences between cis and trans children, who may start things like puberty blockers or hormone replacement before their bodies develop the skeletal structure that the BJSM study says likely gave some trans women faster run times.

“To me it seems like a matter of controlling people’s agencies,” Heldibridle said. “Trans women experienced misogyny in the same way that other women experience misogyny in people trying to control their bodies and what they can and can’t do, and the way it happens for them is by people making them out via threat, even when all of the evidence points to the contrary.”

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania bill has very little chance of becoming law. Gleim said that she has received no word from majority leadership about whether the bill will run on the floor, and Gov. Tom Wolf has already promised to veto the potential legislation.

“The governor has been clear – hate has no place in Pennsylvania, and that includes discrimination. Any legislation designed to deny opportunities to certain children is both disturbing and dangerous,” a spokesperson for Wolf said. “Trans youth should know that they belong, that they are valued, and that their participation in school activities is welcomed. The governor would veto this type of legislation.”

Plus, similar legislation in other states has been met with immediate legal and financial ramifications. North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill” cost the state upwards of $3.76 billion as businesses pulled out of the state and events were cancelled due to the discriminatory policy. Idaho’s law banning transgender athletes, enacted in 2020, was immediately brought to court and is currently awaiting legal review in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Heldibridle said that looking ahead, the PA Youth Congress is focused on seeing a statewide nondiscrimination legislation that would protect trans people from housing and employment discrimination. The country currently has a nondiscrimination executive order in place, but with executive orders subject to the whim of the presidency, he would like to see consistent protections for trans people.

“Our community is resilient,” he said. “As many people try to control us, more try and uplift us. And so, I would like to highlight the main support that our community has, and, you know for any young trans people who might hear or see this, that they are very loved and they’re valued in their communities, despite these actions from minorities who may not respect us.”