Mississippi has become the first state this year to sign into law a bill that will block transgender student athletes from participating in school sports that match their gender identity—even though the main backers of the bill have provided no evidence that trans athletes are even participating in Mississippi school sports.
Legislators in 25 states have introduced bills that would exclude trans young people from participating in school sports, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. South Dakota has already handed off one such bill to Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, who said earlier this week that she’s excited to sign it.
But multiple analyses have found that there relatively few trans athletes participating in sports, and the state legislators who are so determined to pass these bills have so far been unable to show otherwise.
An AP analysis earlier this month found that, out of two dozen state legislators who’d sponsored the bills, most were unable to “cite a single instance in their own state or region where such participation has caused problems.” Some pointed to a lawsuit that cisgender athletes in Connecticut filed after two transgender runners—Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood—won multiple championship races.
“It’s their Exhibit A, and there’s no Exhibit B—absolutely none,” Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told the AP.
A researcher from Loughborough University, in Britain, told the New York Times that, if 200,000 women are participating in college sports, about 50 are trans. Trans people also make up a relatively small fraction of the U.S. adult population: A Gallup poll last month found that about .6 percent of adults identify as trans, a statistic that’s in line with previous research on the topic.
The number of trans kids in school sports is low, and there may be steep, discriminatory hurdles that keep more from joining. In a 2017 study of more than 23,000 students, about 78 percent of trans students said that they were discriminated against at school. About 70 percent of gender-queer and non-binary students said the same. Nearly half of trans kids said that, out of fears for their safety, they’d missed or changed schools.
But even if more trans kids did join school athletics, there’s no evidence that they would pose any threat to cisgender athletes or to the quality and honor of women’s sports, as the advocates behind these sports bills claim.
“The animating claim behind attempts to ban trans women and girls from sports is that being assigned male at birth gives one a lifelong physiological advantage in sports over individuals assigned female,” Chase Strangio, the deputy director for Transgender Justice at ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, wrote in January in a long rebuke to bills that would kick trans kids out of sports. But there is no data on young trans athletes, Strangio said.
“Trans people are able to medically transition at younger ages meaning many never go through their endogenous puberty and none of the data related to a pubertal influx of testosterone is relevant to this population of women and girls who are trans,” he wrote.
“The irony, of course, is that the same advocates who claim that going through endogenous puberty as an assigned male gives one a permanent advantage in sport also want to make it a crime to receive pubertal suppression and other gender-affirming treatment.”
“It starts to look like the project is not about protecting women and girls in sport but rather stopping young people from being trans at all.”
Last month, when the Mississippi state senate first passed its bill, no senator asked whether there are trans athletes competing in Mississippi, according to the AP.
“I've had numerous coaches across the state call me and believe that they feel there's a need for a policy in Mississippi because they are beginning to have some concerns of having to deal with this,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Angela Hill, told the news outlet. It’s unclear what those “concerns” were or if they were based on any evidence.
Meanwhile, trans children and their families have spoken out about the damaging effects of these bills.
“I know what it’s like to have my gender questioned,” Rebekah Bruesehoff, a 14-year-old trans athlete in New Jersey, told the AP. New Jersey protects trans athletes’ rights, but she’s afraid that requiring girls to verify their gender will hurt them. “It’s invasive, embarrassing. I don’t want others to go through that.”
In a press conference last week, Mississippi resident Katy Binstead said that her 13-year-old daughter, Emily Wilson, now “faces bullying on a daily basis” and has been blocked from joining the girls’ basketball team by her school, because she’s transgender.
“My daughter isn't comfortable playing with the boys, because she's not a boy, and she never has been a boy,” Binstead said, according to NBC News.
If the ACLU sues over the Mississippi law, Wilson told Sports Illustrated that she’s ready to be a plaintiff.
“I want to do something about it,” she said. “Because it’s not right. It doesn’t matter if you’re cisgender, transgender or gay. Everyone should be able to play sports if they’re good at it or really want to.”