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May 19, 2024 3:00 pm

Local News

N.C. House Passes Transgender Sports Ban

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by Joe Killian, NC Newsline

A bill barring transgender female athletes from female sports teams passed the state House by a 73-39 vote Wednesday. The bill, which expands the originally proposed ban from middle and high school teams to include college athletes, moved swiftly through two committees Tuesday and Wednesday to a floor vote in the afternoon.

All Republicans who were present voted for the bill, as did three Democrats: Reps. Shelly Willingham, Garland Pierce and Michael Wray.

House Bill 574 now heads to the Senate, which heard its own version of the bill this week. A final version of the measure could be the first in a series of anti-LGBTQ measures to make their way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, facilitated by Rep. Tricia Cotham’s party-switch earlier this month that gave Republicans a veto-proof supermajority.

Cotham, once a champion of LGBTQ rights who received Equality NC’s legislative leadership award in 2013, voted for the ban.

Twenty-one other states have passed comparable bans in a national wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation that includes restrictions on transgender health care to criminalizing drag performances.

During the committee hearing and again in the floor debate Wednesday, Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham), one of the state’s few out LGBTQ lawmakers, called the bill “a proxy for discrimination” unlikely to hold up to judicial scrutiny.

“The justifications for it are not supported by any real need and policies like it are finding less and less refuge under our laws,” Alston said.

Alston pointed to a recent federal court ruling blocking a similar law in West Virginia. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to lift an injunction against that law as litigation continues. This month the U.S. Department of Education also proposed a rule that would make blanket bans of this type a violation of Title IX when they categorically ban transgender students from participating in sports teams because of their gender identity.

“Should we pass this bill and should this federal rule go into effect, which we expect it will this year, we will be in immediate violation of Title IX and will be exposing this state to litigation,” Alston said.

Alston called the bill a part of a larger effort to keep transgender people from living their lives openly.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) joined Alston in questioning the need for the bill. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has a policy regarding how and when to allow transgender athletes to compete on teams that match their gender identity, she said. Since it was adopted in the 2019-2020 season, the association has received 18 gender waiver requests from students. Three of those were from transgender female students. One of them was denied and one was incomplete.

Out of approximately 180,000 active student athletes, Harrison said, how could just one approval of a transgender female athlete be such a threat? Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford): “It just seems like we’re picking on trans kids”   (Screenshot from livestream of committee hearing)

“It just seems like we’re picking on trans kids,” Harrison said.

Personal stories, political motives

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue shared personal and sometimes emotional stories during the lengthy floor debate Wednesday.

Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) said he considered the bill an issue of basic fairness, thinking of his daughters and granddaughters having to compete against transgender athletes he believes have an inherent biological advantage in sports. Women athletes don’t deserve to face that, he said.

“Because of an unfair advantage, created naturally, they lose their life’s dreams,” Arp said. “They lose their chance to succeed. This bill balances that.”

Rep. John Autry (D-Mecklenburg) said the bill had the potential to impact his family personally.

“I come to you today to let you know that I don’t care about any of you in here,” Autry told his fellow lawmakers. “What I care about are my grandchildren — and especially my transgender grandchild.”

Autry’s voice broke with emotion as he said his granddaughter, Savannah, was fortunate to have great support from her family.

“But doing something like this tells the transgender kids in North Carolina, that ‘You are not important, you are to be vilified and you don’t matter as much as other kids.’” Autry said.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) said she knows better than most the importance of fairness in sports. A competitive swimmer from a young age, Morey co-captained the U.S. Olympic swim team in 1976.

“When our team got there, we were beaten in every race,” Morey said. “We were beaten by East German women who had been given anabolic steroids since the age of seven.”

For that reason, she said, she struggled with the issue of transgender women in sports when she was first confronted with it. But ultimately, she came to understand that transgender women are not a threat to women in sports. The ethos of sport itself — and the benefits it conveys to young people —  led her to support their inclusion.

“What is the Olympic creed?” Morey said during Wednesday’s floor debate. “The most important thing is not to win but to take part — just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. What we’re denying here is for these kids to take part.” (Screenshot from livestream of House Chamber)

In debate over the Senate version of the same bill, Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) said context is important as bans of this type are considered.

“We have to acknowledge that there is a national debate that is anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ,” Mayfield said. “This bill exists in the context of that national debate — and that makes it very difficult for those of us who might agree with this on some level and are huge champions of women’s sports and want to protect women to support a bill like this, when it comes in the context of the existing national debate.”

High profile faces, tense debate

Wednesday’s House vote came after two days of tense and emotional debate in committees. Republican lawmakers and conservative activists welcomed a series of high-profile guest speakers to argue for the bill, including former UNC-Chapel Hill women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and Riley Gaines, a former All-American collegiate swimmer.

Hatchell, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s winningest coach, resigned her coaching position at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019 after a program review uncovered allegations of racist comments and pressuring student athletes to play with injuries. Since then, she hasn’t often sought the spotlight. But on the issue of transgender women in sports, she has been on the front lines as North Carolina Republicans pushed for a ban.

Hatchell said she supports transgender athletes, but believes they possess biological advantages that make for uneven competition with women.

“Competitive sports is one of the few places in our society where sex differences matter,” Hatchell told lawmakers.

Gaines, who swam competitively for the University of Kentucky, has travelled the country arguing against the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports since tying with Lia Thomas, the first transgender woman to win an NCAA title, in a swimming event last year. Riley Gaines, a former All-American collegiate swimmer, was in Raleigh to speak in favor of the bill. (Screenshot from livestream of committee hearing)

Gaines also appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with former President Donald Trump and in an ad for congressional hopeful Herschel Walker.

Thomas had clear biological advantages, Gaines said, and she felt humiliated by the experience of working so hard only to tie with Thomas. Thomas was given the single trophy and celebrated as a transgender athlete, Gaines said, while her ambitions were dashed.

“I felt betrayed and belittled,” Gaines said. “Like my efforts and sacrifices I had made had been reduced to a photo-op, to validate the identity and feelings of a male. My feelings didn’t matter.”

As the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport, Thomas became a target for criticism and the face of what conservatives said was a looming transgender takeover of women’s sports. But her actual record doesn’t show the dominant performance advantages her critics describe.

Thomas won the NCAA women’s 500-yard freestyle competition in 2022. But her time — 4 minutes, 32.24 seconds — wasn’t a record-breaker. She was more than 9 seconds behind the record set by Katie Ledecky, a cisgender woman, in 2017. There were 27 all-time NCAA records broken in overall competition — all by cisgender women, including N.C. State’s own Katharine Berkoff. Just one of those cisgender women, the University of Virginia’s Kate Douglass, broke 18 records — including an unprecedented 3 American records in three different strokes.

Facing political pressure, some sports regulating bodies have recently changed their policies on transgender inclusion — including FINA, the world governing body for swimming and World Athletics, the governing body for track and field.

Prominent scientists who have studied the performance and transgender athletes disagree with that action. But proponents of barring transgender women from such competition have applauded it.

Rep. Kristin Baker (R-Cabarrus) said the bill isn’t aimed at excluding transgender athletes. She called its requirement that athletes be categorized by the biological sex they were assigned at birth a matter of safety for female athletes.

Baker pointed to the case of Payton McNabb, a volleyball player at Hiwassee Dam High School in Murphy who sustained a concussion when a player from an opposing team spiked a ball that went into her head.

Such powerful strikes — often leading to concussions — are common enough in competitive volleyball to inspire popular video compilations,  notably ending the playing career of Stanford University volleyball star and Olympic hopeful Hayley Hodson. When the strikes are made among cisgender women, however the severity, it is rarely a story. But the woman whose spike hit McNabb was transgender.

When a video of the incident was uploaded to YouTube it caught fire in conservative media circles. Ultimately, the Cherokee County School Board barred teams from competing against the school fielding the transgender player over some objections from athletic directors, players and coaches who told the board their players didn’t feel endangered.Payton McNabb favors the ban after suffering a concussion when playing volleyball against a team with a transgender player. She has since returned to softball, but says she has lingering negative symptoms. (Screenshot from livestream of committee hearing)

McNabb spoke in favor of the ban Wednesday, saying that though she has returned to playing her other sport, softball, she can’t yet perform at the same level. She said she is still experiencing a long list of symptoms from the concussion including headaches, blurred vision, anxiety and depression, she said.

“I’m not here for me,” McNabb told lawmakers during committee debates Wednesday. “Because I know that my time playing is coming to an end. I’m here for every biological female athlete behind me – my little sister, my cousins, my teammates. Allowing biological males to compete against biological females is dangerous. I might be the first to come before you with an injury. But if this isn’t passed, I won’t be the last.”

The conservative NC Values Coalition thanked both McNabb and Gaines for working with them Wednesday. The coalition’s Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald said the group has been working to get such a bill passed for three years.

“Allowing biological males who identify as women to compete against girls in sports puts an end to women’s sports, takes away girls’ opportunities, and jeopardizes their safety,” Fitzgerald said.

She urged the Senate to quickly pass its version of the bill as well.

LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC denounced passage of the House bill.

“We are once again enraged by the actions of our legislators, who continue to make bullying trans kids the centerpiece of their political agenda,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director.

“Ignoring the many voices who spoke out against HB 574, our lawmakers have moved forward with a bill that does not represent us or our communities. Alongside a slew of other harmful legislation, this bill is a step backwards. And it is a step back down the route of HB 2, which we already saw devastate our state’s economy in 2016. Our legislators need to let queer and trans kids be kids, in sports, at school, and in every other facet of their lives.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.