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The Florida Legislature debates bills that could ban trans youth from sports

Lindsay McClellan's daughter, marching at the 2019 St. Pete Pride Parade, waving a trans flag. Photo courtesy of Lindsay McClellan
Lindsay McClellan's daughter, marching at the 2019 St. Pete Pride Parade, waving a trans flag.

All Lindsay McClellan wants is a normal school year for her 10-year-old trans daughter. Like any loving parent, she wants to be able to drop her kid off knowing in her heart that she will be safe, accepted, and happy.

But as many in the Florida Legislature work to pass legislation that would ban trans students from participating in school sports, McClellan grows anxious.

“It truly breaks my heart. I mean, they're basically being told, you know, 'You are not who you say you are. We don't trust you. We don't like you. We're uncomfortable around you," she said. "You are not one of us.”

Nearly seven years after the Florida Legislature struck down the trans bathroom bill, Republican lawmakers are again focusing on the trans community, with two separate bills: House Bill 1475 and Senate Bill 2012.

The House bill passed 77-40 on its third reading on Wednesday, with all but one Democrat voting against it. The Senate bill was scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday morning but that hearing was postponed.

The bills echo language found in over 80 legislative proposals across the country, something opponents have criticized as a national agenda.

If passed, the new laws could put the state of Florida at odds with sports organizations like the NCAA, potentially costing the state billions.

Activists, allies and families of trans children are not going down without a fight.

"People need to understand the devastating impact that this would have on trans students in our schools," District 49 Rep. Carlos Smith, a Democrat, said. "To be expelled from the teams that they're playing on, to be told that they are not allowed to be a part of a team just because of who they are, is absolutely devastating. And there's no justification for it."

Lindsay McClellan is not alone. Other parents of trans and nonbinary youth are also scared of what this legislation could mean for their kids.

For Adam Gray, father of Elias Gray, a nonbinary 7-year-old child who goes by they/them pronouns, it would deny trans children an essential part of their education.

"Sports is one of the main ways that you build social connection," Gray said. "Where you build a sense of belonging, where you have reinforced to you that you belong among your peers, that you belong in social groups."

The house bill bans male-to-female transgender students from joining school and college sports teams with cisgender girls, although the words “trans” or “gender” do not appear in the original draft of the bill.

The bill lists ways a student's health care provider can resolve "a dispute regarding a student's sex" including a "physical examination” of "the student's reproductive anatomy”.

Equality Florida, the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in the state, has been outspoken in opposing the bills, holding rallies and talking to legislators and the media.

Director of Transgender Equality, Gina Duncan, said the house bill uses the same harmful language found in 82 other bills across 28 states in the U.S., all challenging trans rights. Duncan said it's a new record.

“The way the bill, both bills are written, they are written for a specific purpose. And we believe that it is to further marginalize the transgender community and sadly attack transgender youth," Duncan said. "We see this as an orchestrated national attack on the transgender community.”

Proponents said this bill is about science and preserving the integrity of sports, not ideology.

Republican Rep. Spencer Roach, a co-sponsor of the House bill, was the only lawmaker in favor of the bill who responded to WMFE's request for comment.

“There are real physical differences in men and women," he said. "We want to ensure that girls can compete against other girls, not just for the sake of sports, but a lot of these competitive sports in high school can lead to scholarship opportunities.”

Roach said that - what he terms - “biological boys” have unfair athletic advantages over cisgender females. He said that Title IX was created because women were once excluded from the male-dominated field of sports for far too long. To him, he said, the bill protects women.

Supporters of the legislation cite a federal court case in Connecticut that’s been making national headlines. The lawsuit was filed by parents of cisgender female athletes who claim to have suffered academic and athletic losses when competing against trans female athletes.

“We want to ensure that women and girls aren't aren't becoming sort of sideline spectators in their own sport," Roach said.

Critics call the argument insincere. Testifying in committee, Equality Florida's Duncan called it "Hypothetical Bill 1475."

"The bill sponsor herself, Representative Tuck, could not cite one example where a transgender female athlete had disproportionately impacted a sports event," Duncan said. "Not ever in Florida, not once."

In a committee hearing on the Senate bill, Republican State Sen. Dennis Baxley argued that it's about the safety of female student athletes.

“I have a lot of granddaughters," Baxley said in committee. "I do not want to see some big male who thinks he's a woman, or is convinced he’s a woman, knocking them down on the ground.”

While the Senate version of the bills is more nuanced - acknowledging trans individuals and referring to transgender girls in she/her pronouns - it also requires trans girl students to present proof over 12 months of having the low testosterone levels of an Olympic trans athlete. A 288 nanograms per deciliter level, to be exact.

Dr. Kristin Dayton, UF doctor of pediatric endocrinology, says this is a tall order for school children and their families.

"The challenge in a kid, or anybody who's not competing at that elite level, is that it requires them to be on some very expensive, fairly intense medication" she said. "And maybe not every trans girl is able to do that financially or ready to do that.”

Dr. Dayton said the Senate bill demands make it all but impossible for trans students to just play.

"It's requiring a lot of an 11, 12-year-old trans girl to decide that she, to just play on her soccer team, has to be on a lot of medications that cost thousands of dollars a month," Dr. Dayton said.

Transgender students have already been playing sports in Florida since 2012 under inclusive FHSAA and NCAA rules that protect both cis and trans students.

And, due to hormone blockers, therapy and the nature of trans people, said Dr. Dayton, the myth of trans girls hurting cis girls in school sports is baseless.

"Transgender females actually have lower bone and lower muscle mass than a cisgender male," Dr. Dayton said. "So, huge girls outperforming all the other girls in their team hasn’t played out in real life in the past nine years and also in terms of what science shows us.”

Democratic Senator Tina Polsky, the mother of cis male and a cis female high school and college athletes, says the bill is "a solution in search of a problem."

According to the UCLA Williams Institute - a leading research center for issues of gender identity law - just 0.7% of American youth identify as transgender.

“On top of that, how many are athletes," Polsky said. "And on top of that, how many, even if they are athletes, are willing to try out for a team and change in the locker room, and do all those things that are going to be very difficult for a trans youth? We’re talking the tiniest segment of the population.”

Dr. Dayton said the real risk to consider is to the mental health of transgender students.

In a report on findings from the 2015 US Transgender Survey, the Williams Institute noted that 98% of trans adults who had experienced four discriminatory or violent experiences over the course of  a year reported seriously thinking about suicide, and 51% made a suicide attempt.

Rep. Smith said the legislation creates emotional and physical risks for trans students.

“So, a transgender girl, who looks like a girl, and lives like a girl, and uses the girls’ restroom would be required to play on the men's team," Smith said. "That's absurd. That's not an option.”

With real-life implications like high medical costs, bullying, and mental torment, for trans youth and their families, these bills are personal.

“They're going after the most innocent, most marginalized group of young children there is on the planet," Lindsay McClellan said.

"I wish people understood the mind, of a trans person," the Tampa Bay mother of three said. "And not just the trans mind of a trans person, but the mind of a trans child. Transgender doesn't equal sexuality."

Democratic State Sen. Shevrin Jones said the legislation is unnecessary and mean-spirited and that proponents of the bills have their priorities all wrong.

“Dealing with COVID, that should be at the top of our agenda," Jones said. "And instead of us doing that, we have chosen to play political political kickball, which is unfortunate.”

Jones also said he is expecting an economic backlash for the state of Florida.

In 2017, the NCAA boycotted North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom legislation, costing the state over $3.9 billion.

Currently, Florida has over 40 NCAA-sponsored sports events on the line, scheduled over the next five years.

"They’ll pull all their games from the state of Florida because of this," Jones said.

Democrats in the House filed 19 amendments on HB 1475, including "carving out" elementary school trans children from the bill.

Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskell said the amendments were based on science. She cited the Journal of the American Medical Association, which states that testosterone concentration is not different between the sexes from ages six to 10 years old.

"I understand the purpose of the bill," Driskell said in committee. "What I'm trying to say is that it's irrelevant to our elementary school students. Like, the science is there to tell us that it's irrelevant. There's no reason to put them under the harsh provisions of this bill."

None of the 19 amendments were adopted by the Republican-majority house.

“This is a bigoted bill that targets transgender youth, which the Florida Legislature has a history of," Smith said.

Elias’ dad Adam Gray says this is no time for culture wars.

"If there's anything that we ought to agree on as a society is working together for the health and welfare of our children," Gray said.

Lindsay McClellan echoed that sentiment.

While her daughter has had good experiences with schools so far, she's afraid that could change with this legislation.

"It's going to get a lot worse," she said. "And I don't want to give her any added anxiety because she already suffers with anxiety. So, it's difficult because you have to find that balance, where you're honest and open enough for her to be mentally prepared for what's to come."