Political Dispute Over Transgender Rights Focuses On Youth Sports Conservatives state legislatures are working to bar transgender females from participating in female sports leagues, as Democrats take more action in favor of transgender rights.

Political Dispute Over Transgender Rights Focuses On Youth Sports

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On July 1, transgender athletes will no longer be able to compete on girls' or women's sports teams in Mississippi. The governor sign that policy into law yesterday, and it's part of a wave of legislation being considered across the country. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: There was an impassioned debate in South Dakota's Senate this week over the state's proposed transgender sports bill. Conservatives supporting the bill framed their arguments in terms of fairness.


MAGGIE SUTTON: HB 1217 makes sure women's sports in South Dakota stays fair by prohibiting biological males, no matter how they identify, from competing in female sports.

KURTZLEBEN: A Democratic opponent of the bill talked about Christian values of love and inclusion.


REYNOLD NESIBA: Jesus says, rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. So meaning that there is no rejoicing until all have found a place in the flock, including our trans siblings of faith.

KURTZLEBEN: South Dakota's bill is part of a bigger national conversation about transgender rights. President Biden signed an executive order aimed in part at strengthening discrimination protections for transgender people. And Democrats have reintroduced the Equality Act, which would enshrine LGBTQ rights into law. Former President Donald Trump brought up the topic at CPAC last month.


DONALD TRUMP: Young girls and women are incensed that they are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males.

KURTZLEBEN: Jason Pierceson, political science professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield, sees these bills as just the latest battle in a culture war waged over the rights of LGBTQ Americans. For example, in 2016 and 2017, there was an uptick in bills that aimed to dictate which bathrooms transgender people could use. Now, sports is a major focus.

JASON PIERCESON: They try to find something that doesn't seem to poll as well as general anti-discrimination protections. And they used a lot of scare tactics around that issue to try to create a lot of anxiety among religious conservatives.

KURTZLEBEN: The question remains what practical effect transgender sports bills would have. Kyle Velte is a professor of law at the University of Kansas and testified against that state's bill.

KYLE VELTE: They are suggesting a solution for a problem that simply does not exist in terms of the numbers of transgender youth who are participating in sports.

KURTZLEBEN: A recent AP report found that overwhelmingly, sponsors of these bills couldn't cite examples in their own states where this became a fairness issue. Proponents maintain that the bills are useful. Here's Emilie Kao, an attorney at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

EMILIE KAO: I think the ultimate outcome will be to protect women and girls' equal opportunities. I mean, I think eventually these cases, the examples will proliferate.

KURTZLEBEN: Velte says a Supreme Court decision last year in favor of transgender rights strengthens the legal case against these bills if they're passed. She also fears that they further marginalize transgender youth, whom research has shown are at an elevated risk of suicide. Backers of these bills say they are reacting to Democratic overreach, and they say key voters may be receptive to that argument. Charles Moran, managing director of the Log Cabin Republicans, pointed to a group Republicans struggled with in 2020 - suburban women.

CHARLES MORAN: LGBT issues are something that they care about. But at the same time, when presented with this issue that we're dealing here with transgender sports, some of them will be the first ones to stand up and say, like, no, this is wrong. My daughter shouldn't be having to compete against a person in the same league who's M to F.

KURTZLEBEN: The substance of this debate can get phenomenally complicated. Joanna Harper, author of the book "Sporting Gender" and a transgender athlete herself, points out that for many high schoolers, sports is mainly about being with friends.

JOANNA HARPER: In those cases, we probably shouldn't be too restrictive of trans girls. But at the upper levels, it's reasonable to put restrictions. Now, no, restrictions are not the same thing as bans.

KURTZLEBEN: For example, in her opinion, it could make sense to let a transgender girl onto a team only after a year of hormone therapy. A school might decide to put that restriction into place.

HARPER: And in many cases, it's probably not even necessary to do that. But in some cases, it certainly is. And if all that sounds complex, well, it is. And I'm sorry.

KURTZLEBEN: The upshot is that this topic can be deeply nuanced while rhetoric surrounding it often is not. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said Thursday she is, quote, "still examining" her state's bill. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a similar one yesterday.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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