March 10, 2021 at 2:36 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Major athletic leagues absent in fight against anti-trans sports bills
Major sports leagues, such as the NCAA, have yet to speak out against anti-trans sports laws.

As state legislatures advance measures seeking to bar transgender kids from participating in school sports, key voices in athletics competition who had previously spoken out against anti-LGBTQ measures — notably the NCAA — are now absent from the fight against them, as supporters of transgender rights tell the Washington Blade they’re seeking a more robust response.

Major sports leagues at the professional level and collegiate level — including the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League — in 2016 spoke out against North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and even threatened to cancel events in the state over the anti-transgender law. The voices of those sports leagues, however, are absent or muted in efforts to thwart anti-transgender sports bills as state legislatures advance them now with impunity.

Athletic organizations would be powerful voices in thwarting the anti-trans sports bills, including in Mississippi and North Carolina, where legislation won final approval in the state legislatures and are headed to the governors of those states.

Gail Dent, an NCAA spokesperson, essentially had a hands-off approach to the anti-transgender bills in response to a Washington Blade inquiry on the NCAA’s position on the legislation and what it’s doing to help in the fight against the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” Dent said. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The Association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion. The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes.”

That’s a step back from where the NCAA was just last year in response to Idaho’s then newly enacted law barring transgender girls from school sports. At the time, the association explicitly condemned the law as “harmful to transgender student-athletes and conflicts with the NCAA’s core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals.”

But at the same time, amid a campaign spearheaded by lesbian athletes Billie Jean King and Megan Rapinoe urging the NCAA to nix holding the 2021 Men’s Basketball Championship in the state over the law, the NCAA announced no changes to its programming. The NCAA as of now still intends to hold the first and second rounds of the championship at Boise State University next week.

Transgender rights advocates, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Blade for greater candor, said they’ve been pushing hard behind the scenes for the NCAA to be more outspoken on the anti-transgender sports bills, and hope the association will have a more robust response in the near future.

NCAA, however, isn’t alone in its reticence. The NFL and NBA didn’t respond to repeated requests from the Blade to comment on the anti-transgender sports bills in state legislatures.

The reluctance to speak out may be a reflection of polls. A Politico/Morning Consult poll on Wednesday found broad support to ban transgender kids from athletics. Overall, 53 percent of registered voters support banning transgender athletes, as well as a 59 percent majority of men and a plurality of 46 percent of women.

Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said although the NCAA hasn’t spoken out against the latest wave of anti-transgender sports bills, its statement against the Idaho law has been helpful in efforts against the latest round of measures.

“The NCAA opposed the bill that passed in Idaho last year; they issued a statement with their opposition to that bill,” Oakley said. “And that is something that certainly we have been making sure that all of these legislators who are considering this legislation are aware of.”

Five years ago, the situation was different. Massive opposition emerged over North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which barred transgender people from bathrooms in government-owned buildings consistent with their gender identity, including opposition from sports leagues, professional associations, celebrities, businesses and a firestorm of media scrutiny. The outcry echoed similar outrage over proposed religious freedom measures in Arizona in 2013 and Indiana in 2015 seen to allow businesses to refuse to service to people for being LGBTQ.

In addition to speaking out against the law, sports leagues put their money where their mouth is. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver informed North Carolina “it would be problematic for us to move forward with our All-Star Game if there is not a change in the law.” When no changes were made, the competition was pulled out of Charlotte.

The NCAA stripped North Carolina of seven upcoming tournaments and championships, including early round games of the 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Atlantic Coast Conference and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association also cancelled events in the state.

The collective outcry over House Bill 2 helped lead to the defeat of Gov. Pat McCrory in the 2016 election and eventual mitigation law seen to permit transgender people to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. In 2021, however, bills signaling transgender youth should be excluded from sports athletics are on the verge of being signed into law in South Dakota by Gov. Kristi Noem, who has 2024 presidential aspirations, and in Mississippi by Gov. Tate Reeves.

Oakley pointed out a key difference between between North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and legislation pending before state legislatures and governors is the newer measures “are not signed into law yet.”

“While it’s unfortunate, it is true that we have been much more able to generate public outcry — or that public outcry is easier to come by — after the bills have already been signed into law,” Oakley said. “Both North Carolina and Indiana are examples of that, right? So, HB 2 had passed first before the backlash began, and that backlash took weeks to mount and to really get to the point of what we think of now as being the sort of universal rejection of HB 2. That was not instantaneous.”

Defenders of efforts to combat the anti-transgender legislation say they have plenty of ammunition. Last week, the LGBTQ group Freedom for All Americans unveiled a joint statement signed by more than 55 major companies, including Facebook, Pfizer, and Dell, against the latest wave of anti-LGBTQ state legislation, including bills targeting transgender youth.

Oakley added other organizations have issued statements contributing to the fight against state bills, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, teachers and school counselors associations.

“It’s really great when we can have a group of professionals who are experts in the issues, who are willing to speak out against these bills in the beginning, but for some of these really big bills that are really big threats, it does take time to generate enough pressure that the legislators have to reconsider their choices,” Oakley said.

Other states have advanced or considered similar measures, including Alabama. More than 60 bills have been filed in 30 states to directly target transgender people, including 20 bills specifically aimed at transgender kids in sports. The Utah House last month approved an anti-transgender sports bill, but the measure stalled out in Senate committee.

Even the U.S. Senate has contributed to the measures against transgender youth in sports. Prior to Senate approval of President Biden’s coronavirus relief package, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) proposed an amendment that would have defunded schools and universities that allow biological boys in women’s athletics, essentially barring transgender girls. The measure was defeated in a 49-50 vote requiring 60 votes for passage, but won support from senators on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

To be sure, not all the measures targeting LGBTQ people in state legislatures are related to sports. The Alabama Senate has passed legislation now pending before the House that would criminalize transition-related care with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for doctors. The South Dakota Legislature has sent legislation to the governor’s desk mirroring the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act critics say amounts to a religious refusal for LGBTQ people to the governor’s desk. The Montana Senate has passed bills inhibiting the ability of transgender people to change their gender marker on birth certificates and a religious freedom bill, which are now pending before the House.

Joanna Hoffman, a spokesperson for the LGBTQ group Athlete Ally, made a plea for state legislatures to abandon efforts to restrict transgender kids’ access to sports when asked by the Blade about any efforts to reach out to sport organizations to condemn the proposals.

“Transgender girls and women never have been a threat to girls and women’s sports,” Hoffmam said. “In fact, in states where transgender athletes are able to compete, participation is stronger for all girls. Every person deserves to have their life changed for the better through sports, and we need voices in power to join us in speaking out for sports to truly be safe, welcoming and inclusive for all.” 

Athlete Ally announced Wednesday that at least 545 National Collegiate Athletic Association student athletes sent a letter to the NCAA Board of Governors calling for the NCAA to uphold its nondiscrimination policy and publicly refuse to host championships in states with bans against trans athletes.

TERFs newly energized in pushing for transgender exclusion

Meanwhile, groups opposing transgender non-discrimination in the name of women’s rights, which critics are calling “TERFs” or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, appear to be finding new energy — both at the grassroots and grass tops levels — in supporting anti-trans bills and opposition to the Equality Act, legislation before Congress that would expand the prohibition on anti-LGBTQ discrimination under federal law.

At the same time as athletic groups are reluctant to speak out against the bills, athletes like Martina Navratilova, booted from Athlete Ally for opposing transgender girls, are calling for an exemption under Biden’s executive order for women’s sports.

Among them is Women’s Human Rights Campaign, which appears to draw its name as a parody on the nation’s leading LGBTQ group, and held a march in Washington, D.C. on Monday against the executive order Biden signed against anti-LGBTQ discrimination on the first day of his presidency.

Handling pool duty for the White House press corps on Monday, the Blade witnessed around two-dozen protesters near the Washington Monument holding up signs against the Equality Act and shouting an indiscernible chant as Biden’s motorcade passed that day en route to a VA medical center. The protesters remained near the White House upon Biden’s return trip. One held up a sign reading, “The Equality Act makes women second-class citizens.”

The efforts appear to be part of a coordinated campaign by Republicans to make inroads with suburban women, as reported by Politico, by stoking fears about transgender rights. The loss of support from suburban women is widely seen as playing a key role in Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election after having contributed to his win in 2016.

Oakley said the rise of groups that oppose transgender inclusion in the name of LGBTQ rights are evidence of an “unholy alliance” between women and conservative groups that oppose LGBTQ rights, such as Alliance Defending Freedom and The Heritage Foundation.

“I do think that they are joining forces, and I think that has to do with them having at this point a common purpose, which is excluding, harming and scapegoating trans people for many of the real issues that face women,” Oakley said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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