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Adults in Arizona Are Trying to Stop Trans Girls from Playing School Sports

This bill opens the door for any girl—cis or trans—to scrutiny if they're "too good" at their sport.

by Nico Lang
Mar 13 2020, 2:00pm

FatCamera / Getty Images

Chelsa Morrison’s daughter, Marilyn, was finally ready to go back to public school this year. Their family moved from Texas to Arizona in 2017, the same year Texas lawmakers introduced an anti-trans bill that would prevent girls like Marilyn, who is now 11, from using the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity in schools. Although Marilyn wasn’t out at her new school, she would frequently overhear classmates having discussions in which they said LGBTQ people “are going to hell.”

“It was a trainwreck,” Morrison told VICE. “When you start making comments like that around my child or any child who is under the LGBTQ umbrella, they automatically know they aren't safe. It became a distressing situation where she was miserable and begging to be homeschooled. I hate that for her because it’s really lonely.”

After a year and a half of homeschooling, Marilyn wanted to give public school another shot, hoping that things would be different. She wanted to play on the soccer team with her female classmates and be an ordinary preteen girl preoccupied with crushes, lunchtime gossip, and slumber parties. But if a bill that recently passed the Arizona House of Representatives is signed into law, things won’t be different, not for Marilyn or for any other transgender girl in the state.

Also known as the “Save Women's Sports Act,” House Bill 2706 would prevent transgender girls in Arizona from playing on school sports teams in alignment with their gender identity. In order to compete, these students would have to participate in intramural co-ed leagues or play on the boys’ team. The legislation applies to all K-12 schools, as well as community colleges and universities.

State House Rep. Nancy Barto, the bill’s lead sponsor, believes HB 2706 is necessary to preserve “fairness” in student athletics by preventing “biological males” from dominating women’s sports. When the bill was debated in the House, Barto couldn’t name specific examples in Arizona where that has been the case, but instead cited a lawsuit brought by the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom in Connecticut claiming two trans female students had a competitive advantage over other girls in track competitions.

“What we want to make sure is done is that we clarify that men are not allowed to play on women’s teams and that there’s a way to determine their sex,” Barto said, according to the Associated Press.

After passing the Arizona House on March 3 by a narrow two-vote margin, HB 2706 has been condemned by civil rights groups and business leaders in the state. The ACLU of Arizona called the legislation “invasive,” “dangerous,” and “discriminatory” in a statement, while more than 40 major companies signed onto a letter from the Human Rights Campaign calling on lawmakers to oppose any legislation “targeting transgender youth.” Signatories include Apple, Google, Ikea, Microsoft, Nike, and Uber.

Opponents of the bill say its passage would create a litany of legal and ethical issues for Arizona. Notably, a student-athlete doesn’t even have to be trans to be subjected to the scrutiny proposed by this bill. Dr. Andrew Cronyn, a general pediatrician in Tucson who has been practicing for 20 years, said HB 2706 as originally written would have forced students accused of being transgender to submit to medical testing under three criteria: “testosterone levels, chromosomes, and an exam of their internal and external genitalia.”

“When I was testifying, I almost started crying because I thought about my 7-year-old girl,” Cronyn said. “Her hair's cut short and she wins a race. A girl on another team could say, ‘You need to get your blood drawn, and we need to check your internal and external genitalia.’ That's child abuse.”

While requirements to examine genitalia and survey hormone levels to determine transgender status was eventually dropped from the bill, students would still be compelled to undergo DNA testing. Cronyn said those costs wouldn’t be covered under Arizona’s Medicaid program “unless it affects somebody's medical treatment.” If families were forced to pay out of pocket to have the tests done, it could potentially cost them up to $1,000.

“Poor girls will have to pay for this themselves, and there’s no guidelines about who can bring these complaints,” he said. “It can be: ‘I was watching in the crowd and felt that this girl [won] because she’s not really a girl.’ She could show her birth certificate and that wouldn't be enough.”

With no rules or regulations in place regarding the process of filing formal complaints, the reality is that cisgender students are even more likely than their trans classmates to be harmed by the legislation. The Arizona Interscholastic Association has a rigorous application process requiring that trans students submit letters of support from a health care provider, school administrator, and a parent before they are permitted to play on school sports teams in alignment with their gender identity. Only six trans girls have ever successfully been approved.

Lizette Trujillo, the parent of a transgender 12-year-old in Arizona, also questioned who will be permitted to access the “private medical information” of cisgender and trans students whose identities are called into question.

“There’s really nothing in the bill that states who you would turn genetic testing into,” Trujillo told VICE, noting that this information is federally protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. “It’s just another way to force trans children out and to prevent them from being able to participate safely in their classrooms and in school activities.”

If signed into law, Arizona’s bill is likely to be challenged not just under FERPA laws but also Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs, and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that the government can’t treat individuals differently unless it has a legitimate interest in doing so. But that hasn’t stopped copycat legislation from being introduced in 21 states—including Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Washington.

These proposals are just some of the record number of anti-trans bills introduced in the 2020 legislative session: at least 41, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for all Americans. Twenty states have put forward legislation that would criminalize doctors who offer life-saving treatments like hormone therapy and puberty blockers to transgender minors. Some states would make it a felony to do so.

Freedom for All Americans CEO Kasey Suffredini said the “explosion” of bills targeting trans people in 2020 is fueled by the widespread defeat of anti-trans bathroom bills in recent years. The aforementioned legislation in Texas eventually failed to become law, even after lawmakers called a special session to force it through. North Carolina’s infamous House Bill 2 was eventually replaced with a watered-down version after 200 companies threatened to boycott the state.

“They are looking for the next scare tactic that they can use to try to erode support for LGBTQ people,” Suffredini told VICE. “As more Americans come to support transgender people, they reject these kinds of proposals as being the exact kind of contrived effort to stir up myths and bias that they are.”

Many among this year’s crop of anti-trans bills have failed to gain significant traction in their respective state legislatures, but a few have managed to find success. Last month, the Idaho House passed a ban on trans female students participating in girls’ athletics by an overwhelming 52-17 margin, just hours after approving a second bill barring transgender people from adjusting their birth certificates to align with their gender identity.

Arizona’s bill faces a much steeper hill to climb than the Idaho legislation before it can become law. The GOP controls 60 percent of seats in both the Idaho House and Senate, but in Arizona, Republicans are clinging to a House majority by just four seats. To prevent HB 2706 from becoming law, Arizona Democrats would need to flip just two of their conservative colleagues. Phoenix’s NBC affiliate, KPNX-TV, reports that Republican Senators Kate Brophy McGee and Heather Carter “appear to be likely ‘no’ votes,” but neither has commented on the bill.

Morrison has a message for any lawmakers in Arizona who may be considering supporting HB 2706: Come over and meet her family. If they did, she said they would see that they are just a “typical family who happens to have a child that is transgender, and that’s not even the most spectacular thing about her.”

“I have a child that I know is unique in a lot of ways, and it has nothing to do with her being transgender,” Morrison said. “She is fierce. She is not going to back down and let anybody walk all over her and her friends because of something that’s beyond her control. She was born transgender. There’s no medicine that can make that go away, and there’s no legislation that’s going to change who she is.”

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