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Bills reintroduced that would ban transgender students from joining women’s sports teams

GOP lawmakers say legislation is about fairness, opponents say it's discrimination

the Wisconsin State Capitol against a gray sky
Wisconsin State Capitol. Angela Major/WPR

Transgender student athletes in Wisconsin would not be allowed to participate on sports teams matching their gender identity under reintroduced GOP legislation. The bills would create sex-based categories for high school and college sports teams and allow schools to sue the NCAA or federal government if they face sanctions for excluding transgender athletes.

Two sets of Republican bills would require public and private K-12 schools, along with University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Technical College System schools, to create male, female and coed categories for athletic teams. Under the bills, a student athlete’s sex is defined as the sex determined by a physician at birth.

The legislation explicitly bans male students, as defined by the bills, “from participating on an athletic team or in a sport that is designated for females or women.”

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The bills, which Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has promised to veto, were introduced on Aug. 11 by state Rep. Barb Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, and fellow Republicans. Nearly identical legislation was introduced in 2021 but failed to pass before the end of the legislative session.

Dittrich told Wisconsin Public Radio that a lot has changed since then. She pointed to a May poll from the Marquette University Law School that found 71 percent of respondents favor requirements that transgender athletes compete on teams matching their assigned sex at birth and not their current gender identity.

“The goal of the legislation is not to be unfair to anyone,” Dittrich said. “It’s to create a spot for everyone that’s safe and fair for each.”

Transgender athletes, whether transitioning from male to female or female to male, would be allowed to compete in the coed category under the bill, Dittrich said.

The National College Athletics Association, Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and U.S. Department of Education have taken steps to allow transgender athletes to compete on teams in line with their gender identity in recent years.

A WIAA letter opposing the 2021 version of Dittrich’s legislation said the bills were unnecessary and lawmakers were inserting themselves “into the decision-making process of a private, member driven organization.” It said whether intentional or not, the K-12 focused bill “targets a vulnerable segment of young people” that may lead to isolation and exacerbate their vulnerability.

Dittrich told WPR the WIAA and NCAA have not participated in the drafting of the current iteration of the transgender sports legislation.

The bills create new avenues for lawsuits to be brought against schools by female student athletes if they feel they are “deprived of the opportunity to participate” if a student transitioning from male to female is allowed to join.

Schools would also be allowed to sue organizations like the NCAA or WIAA and even the federal government if they face sanctions for barring transgender students from participating in sports matching their gender identity.

“You’ve got to have some teeth in this legislation because you have to have enforcement mechanisms,” Dittrich said. “Otherwise, it’s just a suggestion.”

Wisconsin State Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, said the legislation and concerns about transgender athletes are an example of the GOP “feeding their base.”

“These bills are a continued attack on our friends, family members and friends and neighbors in Wisconsin,” Agard said. “They are incredibly harmful.”

Wisconsin Family Action, a conservative group, has registered in favor of the GOP bills. President Julaine Appling said setting clear rules on transgender athletes is also about protecting the safety of young women. She pointed to an incident at the Sun Prairie Area School District, where young girls in a locker room were reportedly exposed to the genitalia of an 18-year-old senior who is transitioning from male to female as an example.

Appling said her organization is opposed to gender transition entirely because “it’s really doing the impossible.” She said it’s unclear whether creating a coed sports category where males, females and transgender individuals can compete against one another “is the answer” to the bigger question.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has registered against the legislation banning males transitioning to female from participating in women’s sports. A statement from Executive Director Melinda Brennan said lawmakers “should tackle real issues” like unequal funding for men’s and women’s sports.

“Excluding trans students from participating in sports teams consistent with their authentic gender identity is unfair and discriminatory,” Brennan said. “School sports should be inclusive for all students.”