‘I just want to exist’: Bill seeks to block trans athlete participation

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Grace Walker is leaving high school this spring with plenty of memories from four years of tennis and cheerleading: car wash fundraisers, sleepovers, sneaking out to get food with her teammates.

Walker was voted captain of both teams, not because of her athletic abilities, she said — she describes herself as a “middle-of-the-road” athlete — but because of her love for sports and dedication to creating a welcoming team environment.

Partway through her senior year, Walker heard about a bill introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would ban transgender girls like her from playing on girls’ sports teams. She wasn’t surprised. But it still hurt.

“It’s painful, and it’s sad because I would not be the person I am today without athletics,” Walker said. “They made me confident and they made me happy. And (I met) some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I believe every person, transgender or not, is entitled to that.”

The bill is one of more than 30 introduced at legislatures across the country this year aimed at prohibiting trans student athletes from playing on teams aligned with their gender. 

Proponents in Minnesota argue the bill would prevent transgender girls from having an unfair advantage in athletic competitions. But sports researchers, advocates and athletes say the measures are unnecessary and harmful to transgender youth, who are already more likely to experience isolation, bullying and violence at school.

“These same (legislators) have really not, historically, cared about equity or girls’ participation in sport, and they’re using trans girls as an entry point,” said Nicole LaVoi, a University of Minnesota researcher. “For those of us that are advocates for girls’ and women’s sport, we think it’s shameful.”

The bill, authored by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, would prohibit schools from allowing “a person whose sex is male” to participate in sports “designed for women or girls.” The language is included in the Senate’s 136-page omnibus education budget proposal, authored by Education Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. 

That means passage of Minnesota school funding for the next two year would also include the transgender girl sports ban. The DFL-controlled Minnesota House and DFL Gov. Tim Walz strongly oppose the measure and are unlikely to approve any education bill that includes it. 

Ruud and Chamberlain declined to comment. The Minnesota State High School League did not respond to interview requests.

This isn’t the first time Minnesota legislators have moved to restrict participation of transgender student athletes.

In 2014, the board of the Minnesota State High School League, which regulates high school sports, voted 18-1 to allow transgender students to play on teams aligned with their gender. Several Republican lawmakers told the board that they should leave the policy to the Legislature, and a group of Republicans introduced a bill to override the league’s decision the following year. The bill died that session.

In addition to Ruud’s Senate bill this session, Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, authored a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for transgender girls to play on a girls’ team. The proposal did not receive a hearing in the DFL-controlled House.

Walker said playing sports helped her feel like she belonged at school, and practices were a welcome break from classes and homework. Her experience living in a supportive community is an “outlier” among trans youth, she said.

Nearly 35% of transgender students reported being bullied at school in 2017, almost double the rate of cisgender students, according to a national survey. Transgender students are also far more likely to report being threatened or injured with a weapon at school, feeling hopeless and attempting suicide.

“The last thing any kid needs is to be in their safe space, being who they are, and to suddenly be reminded of the fact that not only could I be kicked off the team, but I could get a petty misdemeanor,” Walker said.

Shain, a 26-year-old St. Paul resident who declined to share his last name, said he stopped playing sports as a teen because of transphobia and homophobia from teammates and parents. Joining the Minneapolis Queer Hockey Club renewed his love for sports as an adult, he said.

“They’re trying to fight wars that don’t exist,” Shain said of supporters of the restrictive bills. “When I was a kid, the other kids didn’t care. It’s when we start getting into the territory of becoming young adults that these biases happen.” 

The Minnesota Department of Education is also against the measure. In a statement to the Reformer, Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said all students deserve to feel welcome, and she strongly opposes “any effort to prohibit our transgender students’ participation in sports based on their identity.”

During a legislative hearing in February, Ruud said her bill seeks to “(clarify) the intent of Title IX,” the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sex in schools. Title IX is credited with creating more athletic opportunities for girls and women.

“If we continue to allow biological males to play on girls’ sports teams, we will no longer have female athletes,” Ruud said. “The very thing we fought to establish in Title IX will be gone.”

LaVoi, director of the university’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women, sees the matter differently. Girls’ and women’s sports have always been “highly contested terrain,” she said, and bills about transgender athletes show how opposition lives on nearly 50 years after Title IX was enacted.

Proponents of these bills argue people assigned male at birth are stronger and faster than people assigned female at birth and could dominate girls’ and women’s sports. There’s little research on transgender athletes, but some studies suggest people assigned male at birth have some physiological advantages.

That doesn’t mean those advantages are unfair, especially in youth sports, Dr. Eric Vilain, a researcher who has advised the NCAA, told NPR in March. For example, tall people might have an edge in basketball, but not in gymnastics.

“The question is whether there is — in real life, during actual competitions — an advantage of performance linked to (testosterone) and whether trans athletes are systematically winning all competitions,” Vilain said. “That’s not the case.”

Erin Maye Quade, advocacy director of legal nonprofit Gender Justice, said the Minnesota proposal would conflict with the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex and gender identity.

It may also violate the U.S. Constitution, she said, citing a court ruling that blocked a similar law in Idaho last year.

The Senate’s omnibus education bill will head to a conference committee soon, where legislators from the House and Senate will reconcile their budget proposals before sending a final version to Walz for veto or approval.

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said the House members of the conference committee will not consider the transgender athlete proposal. “We have real challenges in Minnesota’s educational system, but girls playing sports isn’t one of them,” Davnie, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said in a statement to the Reformer.

Even if the bill dies, the fact that it has been a subject of conversation at the Legislature means damage is already done, Quade said.

Walker said legislators who support these bills need to take the time to understand what it’s like to be a trans athlete and what sports mean to students.

“I’m just like every teenager,” Walker said. “I just want to exist. That’s all I want. And it hurts to see lawmakers blatantly ignore that.”

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.
Cam Crawford
Cam Crawford (he/him) is a Minnesota native, writer and food service worker.