Once again, Iowa Republicans are challenging federal laws in an attempt to discriminate against a population of Iowans and deny their identities if they want to play sports.
This time, Reps. Skyler Wheeler (Orange City) and Henry Stone (Forest City) are championing House File 2309, which would prevent transgender girls from competing in sports as themselves. Instead, trans girls would have to try out for the boys’ teams.
The subcommittee advanced the bill, but not before debate from supporters and opponents of the legislation.
One trans girl who plays volleyball, bowls, and participates in track and field spoke against the bill during a Thursday Iowa House subcommittee hearing.
“Through my transition, the best thing to look forward to at the end of the day are those sports,” said Gavy Smith. “They help me make new friendships and keep the old ones. They have made me stronger mentally and physically. If I were told I couldn’t play the sports that I want to, and for the gender that I identify as, I would feel less about myself, like I am being forced to feel different about who I am. At the same time, I would be confused because I am a girl. So shouldn’t I be able to play for the girls’ team?”
Supporters of the bill had one argument: Girls can’t compete—or win—against boys, and in order to protect girls’ sports, trans girls can’t be allowed to play with them.
“Women deserve to compete on a level playing field. Allowing men to compete in women’s sports destroys fair competition in women’s athletic opportunities,” said Chuck Hurley of the Family Leader. “Girls deserve equal opportunities to experience the thrill of victory. Allowing males to compete in women’s sports disadvantages girls and destroys those opportunities. Girls should not be sidelined in their own sport.”
This was the main talking point repeated by other speakers in support of the bill. Certain phrases like “women to compete on a level playing field” and “girls should not be sidelined in their own sport” were also repeated.
There were several types of pushback to those arguments. Physicians, psychologists, representatives for schools, and LGBTQ advocates also spoke. They said there have been no reports of unfairness in Iowa, that this bill will do more harm to trans children than good for cisgender children, and there are ways to mitigate problems if this does become an issue.
“Legislation banning trans student-athletes from participating in sports is based on fiction, but the mental health impacts that it will have on LGBTQ youth are strikingly real,” said Becky Smith, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools. “Transgender students want the opportunity to play sports for all the same reasons that other students do. You shouldn’t ban them from playing because they’re transgender, you should be expanding opportunities and support services for this group of young people, not pushing them further away to the sidelines.”
As for fairness issues in competition, several speakers said there have been no reports of an issue in Iowa, despite trans girls competing.
“We do not have these issues of competition or discriminatory practices right now,” said Melissa Peterson of the Iowa State Education Association. “When these individual cases come up, the athletic association has been dealing with them in an equitable and inclusive fashion on a case-by-case basis.”
“What we’re talking about today is further marginalizing a vulnerable group of children, children who are already statistically increased risk of adverse mental health outcomes and suicide,” said Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa. “And we’re telling them that they are somehow to blame for the problems in girls and women’s sports, despite no documented instances of unfairness here in our state.”
Crow and others, such as Emily Piper of the Iowa Association of School Boards, also said federal law prohibits laws such as this one. Federal law, in most cases, triumphs over state laws.
“We ask that you do not put us in this position of having to choose between a state law and a federal law,” Piper said. “The end result for school districts is going to be confusion, it’s going to be expensive and it’s going to be very difficult for them to manage.”
Speakers in opposition to the bill noted dire mental health ramifications for trans youth when their rights and identities are questioned.
“As a mental health professional, I’m really concerned,” said Lorilei Baker, a psychotherapist in West Des Moines. “It seems like every year I have to keep showing up at the capitol to speak to you about bills like this and it concerns me. We know that between 30-50% of trans youth will attempt suicide in their lifetime and I’m wondering why you do not care about that.”
Dr. Katherine Imborek, who helps lead the LGBTQ clinic at the University of Iowa, said just yesterday she saw four patients for follow-up appointments after they were hospitalized for suicide attempts. Unfortunately, she said, it was a typical day for her.
But studies show that involvement in sports counters that risk.
“Sports are amazingly helpful. They decrease rates of obesity. They decrease rates of depression and anxiety. They decrease rates of thoughts of suicide. They increase school connectedness and feelings of belonging,” Imborek said. “This bill pretends to protect girls, and what it is doing is solving a problem that doesn’t exist. We know there’s a problem. The problem is that transgender youth are at high risk for poor mental health outcomes.”
While it was originally expected that the bill would get fast-tracked today through both a subcommittee and committee, the committee hearing was postponed to a later time.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Gavy Smith’s name.