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When Republicans target trans girls, cisgender girls suffer too

While the country waited Tuesday afternoon for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, a Florida state Senate committee quietly killed a controversial bill that would have banned transgender girls and women from playing girls interscholastic and women’s intercollegiate sports.

Sex verification of female athletes has a long and horrid history in sports.

The bill, SB 2012, sparked controversy late last week over a provision that would have required any girls athletic competitor to prove their assigned sex at birth through a variety of verification methods if challenged. One of those methods was an inspection of her external and internal genitalia.

What was worse about the bill was that anyone — an opposing coach, player or even a random spectator — could challenge the gender of any player on the field.

That bill may be dead, but Florida is far from alone. Three states — Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi — have already passed similar bans and Arkansas voted to pass a second bill Wednesday allowing the state attorney general to sue schools that allow trans girls to play on girls sports team. So far this year, bills in about 30 states have been introduced by Republican legislators that would ban trans girls from girls sports or otherwise restrict athletes from competing in a gender group other than the one listed on their birth certificates.

The issue is now being used by Republicans both as a political wedge and as a means to get trans women classified under the law as men, which could have knock-on effects for the rest of their fight against transgender rights.

But underlying the Republican argument is an all too familiar patriarchal trope: that men are born physically superior to women. The cultural assumption that boys are inherently more athletic than girls is a difficult one to break, and it’s long been used to marginalize girls and women’s sports. The assumption undergirds the existing underfunding and de-prioritization of women’s sports.

In March, the sports world witnessed wide disparities between the men’s NCAA basketball tournament experience and the women’s, with everything from the weight room to the food to the player swag bags making it clear that the men are more highly valued by the collegiate athlete administrators.

Despite their failure to name specific instances of problems with trans girls playing girls sports, Republicans insist their rash of bills are meant to ensure “fairness.”

Generally, the assumption is true, at least at the highest levels of sports. Men’s world records are better than women’s, for example. But that doesn’t mean all men are born more athletic than all women. Those assumptions become strained when trans bodies are introduced into the equation. There are no trans women with elite-level world records, and trans participation in the Olympics or the NCAA is tightly regulated based on artificially lowering an athlete’s testosterone levels.

Testosterone limits is the latest measure of who counts as a woman in women’s sports. But sex verification of female athletes has a long and horrid history in sports, as athletic organizations have resorted to various ways to prevent men from masquerading as women in order to achieve success — something that has never happened in the history of professional sports.

Women’s Olympic athletes before the late 1960s were forced into naked parades in front of doctors to ensure participating athletes were born with female anatomy. In 1968, the Olympics switched to a chromosomal test to determine womanhood.

Verification methods evolved over time. Trans women were allowed to compete in the Olympics as women for the first time in 2004, provided they had completed gender reassignment surgery. The Olympic rules were modified again in 2016, allowing trans women who hadn’t had surgery to compete as women as long as their testosterone levels were low enough.

Over that time, not a single openly trans woman athlete has even qualified for the Olympics, much less medaled. Similarly, according to an Associated Press report from March, Republican legislators have struggled to identify even a single trans girl athlete playing girls sports in their state. This was the case in Texas during a Tuesday hearing on the state’s version of the trans sports bill, which would limit athletic participation for athletes to their birth-assigned gender, which is already policy in Texas high school sports.

Similarly, Florida Republicans couldn’t name any existing trans athletes, despite the Florida state high school athletics association allowing their participation in their transitioned genders since 2013. Current Republican U.S. senator and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott called for the bill’s passage in a tweet over the weekend, despite the trans inclusion policy having been in place without issues under his administration.

That’s perhaps the point of these bills: to reinforce cultural perceptions of biological sex, consequences be damned.

According to the Florida High School Athletic Association, just 11 transgender athletes have participated under the association’s trans inclusion policy since its inception. The proposed bans are targeting a minuscule percentage of student athletes while also introducing archaic barriers to all female athletes. That’s perhaps the point of these bills: to reinforce cultural perceptions of biological sex, consequences be damned.

Despite their failure to name specific instances of problems with trans girls playing girls sports, Republicans insist their rash of bills are meant to ensure “fairness.” But what they’re really doing is reinforcing the patriarchal assumption that men are inherently born physically superior to women.

The athletes most affected by this assumption are always going to be female athletes. A similar ban on trans girls in girls sports was passed last year by the Idaho Legislature. It was later temporarily blocked by a federal court for being discriminatory against both trans girls and cisgender girls.

One of the suit’s plaintiffs was a teenage cis girl who felt the law would force her to unfairly prove her assigned sex at birth, which she felt was discriminatory. U.S. District Judge David Nye agreed.

“Being subject to a sex dispute is itself humiliating,” the judge said in an 87-page ruling imposing an injunction against the law’s implementation, which found that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in having the new law ruled unconstitutional.

These laws don’t have any direct effect on cis boy athletes, who can continue to play and enjoy the better funding and more attention always given to athletic boys. But girls suffer, now having to go an extra step in proving their own girlhood before being allowed to play tennis or basketball with their friends.

Body image issues run rampant among teenage girls and can last a lifetime. Sports are supposed to be a healthy outlet and a path toward a positive self-image, but a bill like Florida’s would empower anyone, from coaches to fanatical spectators, to become gender cops, able to swoop in and challenge the gender of anyone on the court or field.

Girls shouldn’t have to look in the mirror before the big game and worry that some random jerk may think they’re not feminine enough. Florida’s bill, Arkansas’ bill and the many others like them are a grotesque invasion of privacy that should have no standing in a free society that allegedly cares and supports its girls and women.

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