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Evers vetoes bill restricting transgender athletes in school sports

Evers says legislation is part of 'hateful and discriminatory rhetoric' from Republicans, while bill sponsor accuses governor of standing against women

Gov. Tony Evers speaks ahead of President Joe Biden on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at the Pieper-Hillside Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Gov. Tony Evers made good on a promise to veto a Republican bill aimed at banning students born biologically male from playing on K-12 female sports teams.

In his veto message Tuesday, the Democratic governor accused Republicans of perpetuating “hateful and discriminatory rhetoric,” while a GOP lawmaker accused Evers of standing “AGAINST women.”

The bill was backed by Republicans who argued the state must step in to protect women’s school sports, saying biological differences between male and female bodies can create an unfair situation for players.

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Democrats, including Evers, have accused Republicans of using the bill to demonize transgender youth in Wisconsin.

The issue gained national attention in 2022 after transgender woman Lia Thomas won the NCAA championship for the 500-yard freestyle while competing on the University of Pennsylvania’s swim team.

The bill got the final approval from lawmakers March 12, with a mostly party-line vote. Notably, Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, joined all Democrats in opposition.

The bill was supported by religious and conservative groups like the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Wisconsin Family Action and Heritage Action for America. It was opposed by 21 other organizations, including the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Wisconsin School Psychologists Association, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the State Bar of Wisconsin.

In his veto message, Evers said he objected to “codifying discrimination into state statute.”

“I restate again today: this type of legislation, and the harmful rhetoric beget by pursuing it, harms LGBTQ Wisconsinites’ and kids’ mental health, emboldens anti-LGBTQ harassment, bullying, and violence, and threatens the safety and dignity of LGBTQ Wisconsinites, especially our LGBTQ kids,” Evers wrote.

“States across this country may give way to radical policies targeting LGBTQ individuals and families and threatening LGBTQ folks’ everyday lives and their ability to be safe, valued, supported, and welcome being who they are,” the governor said. “As long as I am the governor of this great state, Wisconsin will
not be among them.”

Evers also said the WIAA, which oversees school sports across the state, already has a policy regarding transgender athletes.

Sue Neely, director of family and community engagement for the Gay Straight Alliance For Safe Schools , told WPR she’s grateful for the veto. She said the bill and others like it leave transgender individuals feeling “a lot of anxiety and fear.”

“But just knowing that (Evers is) going to have our backs and continue to keep standing up for the rights of Wisconsin’s trans and queer youth really gives us a sense of security and reassurance,” Neely said.

A social media post from one of the bill’s authors, Rep. Barb Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, blasted Evers for what she called a “misogynist veto” and claimed the governor “once again stands AGAINST women.”

Dittrich cited a 2023 national poll conducted by the Marquette University Law School that found 70 percent of respondents felt transgender athletes should be required to compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth rather than the gender they identify with.

The Wisconsin Faith and Freedom Coalition pushed for the bill in the Legislature. Organization president John Pudner told WPR the group was disappointed with, but not surprised by, the governor’s veto.

“I think it’d be nice to have the governor’s leadership position side with the people on this one,” Pudner said. “And on this one, I just feel like he’s not.”

In September, a GOP bill was circulated that would ban certain gender affirming health care, including hormone therapy and surgeries for minors in Wisconsin. The legislation would have caused medical providers to lose their license if they provided those services to people under the age of 18. Evers vetoed that, too, and promised the same for any similar legislation from Republicans.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the list of opponents also included the Wisconsin Council of Churches.