Iowa Transgender Athletes Ban Would Only Add To Mental Health, Isolation Problems

Photo by Mark Mauno, via Flickr

Though it was defeated earlier this year, the ban on transgender girls from participating in school sports still looms in Iowa.

In late April, Gov. Kim Reynolds mentioned her interest and support for passing the legislation on Fox News, despite the Iowa legislature never taking it up as a serious topic. The session ended without the legislation crossing Reynolds’ desk, but many suspect it may show up in future sessions.

Becky Ritland, the executive director of Iowa Safe Schools said she has no insight into what the bill would look like.

“Of course, we would hope that this does not come up because, at the end of the day, it’s a non-issue,” she said of Republicans’ characterization of transgender students participating in sports.

Reynolds and other supporters of bills like these—Republicans in more than 30 states that have passed or considered these bans—argue that it’s necessary to protect girls’ sports. Notably, it was Reynolds’ only justification when pressed by reporters at a press conference.

Their argument is that transgender girls have an unfair advantage over cisgender girls because of their biology. Science has shown the truth is more complicated, and any difference is so minor it doesn’t matter at the high-school level.

The effect on transgender athletes is more serious and immediate. And it would be felt by students in Iowa.

Mental Health Effects

Iowa Safe Schools doesn’t have a concrete number for transgender students in Iowa who play sports. Legislation like this won’t make anyone more eager to be out.

“It just reinforces a message that in Iowa, trans youth are considered less than or that trans youth are somehow not afforded the same rights and privileges as their cisgender counterparts, which is really upsetting because it also has detrimental physical and mental health outcomes on the transgender community,” Ritland said.

“What we’re really seeing here is that it is a bullying tactic being used by the governor and by the Iowa legislature to continually have these conversations around essentially debating the existence of gender identity.”

Studies show that transgender youth, and those who are gender nonconforming, experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorders than do youth who identify with their assigned gender. Transgender youth also experience higher rates of suicidal thinking and self-harm than their cisgender peers.

Those rates decrease to normal levels for the age group when transgender and gender nonconforming youth have their identities supported and validated, some studies show. Which means they’re allowed to freely express themselves.

“I think if [the ban] were to pass, it really just sets a dangerous precedent, because not only is the message that trans students are somehow not entitled to the same rights and privileges as their other counterparts in schools and in athletics, but I think it also sends a message that for some reason we need to put in extra protections for athletes who are assigned female at birth,” Ritland said.

“They have these conversations saying we need to protect our female athletes, we need to protect our female athletes,” she said. “But really, it comes back to the idea that female athletes are just as capable as their male counterparts.”

Biological Differences

Bad faith arguments often suggest someone could pose as transgender in order to have an advantage. Ritland said that doesn’t happen.

“It is very, very unlikely that they would ever voluntarily undergo criticism, undergo bullying and harassment, feelings of isolation simply to get some sort of competitive edge,” she said.

It also returns to the argument that biology is an automatic advantage.

Schools across the country and even the Olympics have had trans-inclusive policies for years and have never seen problems. Science shows the effects of testosterone levels is complicated, and mixed, when it comes to athletic performance, and transgender athletes don’t widely out-compete thier cis peers.

For example, one Connecticut girl whose family filed a federal lawsuit to block transgender athletes from competing beat a transgender athlete in a race two days after the suit was filed.

And for states intent on pursuing this type of legislation, the Education Department recently said Title IX protections, which prohibit sex-based discrimination, apply to transgender students, citing the Supreme Court decision that protections in the Civil Rights Act apply to LGBTQ citizens.

Ritland and other staff at Iowa Safe Schools have talked with transgender athletes in the state and reported that most are afraid of being outed and of not being allowed to play a sport they enjoy that’s also part of their social circle.

“At the end of the day, extracurricular sports are an opportunity for students to participate in a social activity and we should not be creating barriers for students to participate in things that they enjoy,” Ritland said.


by Nikoel Hytrek
Posted 7/9/21

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