Metro Weekly

Tennessee governor: Transgender athletes will “destroy women’s sports”

Proposed bill would require athletes to prove their gender identity matches the sex on their "original" birth certificates

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee – Photo: Facebook.

LGBTQ groups balked at statements made by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) after he claimed that allowing transgender athletes to compete on middle and high school sports teams will “destroy women’s sports.”

“I do believe that transgenders participating in women’s sports will destroy women’s sports,” Lee told reporters during a news conference earlier this month, in response to a question about a bill making its way through the legislature that would prohibit student-athletes from competing in sports designated for any sex besides the one they were assigned at birth.

“It will ruin the opportunity for girls to earn scholarships,” Lee added. “It will put a glass ceiling back over women that hasn’t been there in some time. I think it’s bad for women and for women’s sports.”

The bill being considered by the Republican-dominated legislature, sponsored by State Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), would require students to “prove” their sex matches their “original” birth certificate in order to participate in sports. If a birth certificate is unavailable then the parents must provide another form of evidence “indicating the student’s sex at the time of birth.”

Proponents of the bill have argued that transgender athletes, specifically transgender females, retain physical characteristics and naturally-occurring hormone levels that give them an unfair advantage over cisgender women.

“When brains, not brawn are that which make the difference in competition, females certainly hold our own and excel,” co-sponsor Robin Smith (R-Hixson) said in a statement to CBS affiliate WDEF. “In contests where speed, strength, and musculoskeletal physics and structure are relevant, a distinction must be made, especially once the changes of puberty commence. The presence of testosterone offers a critical advantage that will create a construct for women that will be not only unfair but demoralizing.”

Lee did not explicitly promise to sign Cepicky’s bill into law if it passes, but said he believes allowing trans athletes to compete will “put a glass ceiling back over women that hasn’t been there in some time,” according to The Associated Press.

Tennessee is one of more than a dozen states with Republican-run legislatures where lawmakers are pushing bills to bar transgender athletes from competing.

Proponents of such measures cite their disagreement with recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finding that Title IX, which was drafted to provide equal educational and athletic opportunities to women, also protects that transgender people from discrimination.

See also: Ex-NFL star Marcellus Wiley suggests separate competitions for trans athletes

Anti-LGBTQ advocates also balk at a recent executive order signed by President Joe Biden prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination, part of which demands that transgender students be afforded equal opportunities in life, including with respect to their ability to participate in athletics.

At his press conference, Lee said he thought Biden’s order constituted a “tremendous overreach of the federal government” into matters normally handled by individual states.

A bill similar to Tennessee’s was signed into law in Idaho last year, but has been blocked by a federal judge after LGBTQ advocates sued, arguing that the new law is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

LGBTQ advocates slammed Lee’s comments, as well as the motivation behind the bill.

“The bill is discriminatory in and of itself, but it’s also misleading,” Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, told The Tennessean. “They are not providing a path for everyone to play, they are picking a group of people and trying to find a way to sit them out.”

See also: Utah senator calls allowing transgender athletes to compete in their gender identity “offensive”

The Human Rights Campaign called Lee’s comments “paper-thin grandstanding,” accusing Lee of fear-mongering and demonizing transgender youth.

“Governor Lee has no idea what he’s talking about. We’d love to engage with Governor Lee if he can actually name a time when a transgender athlete in Tennessee ‘stole’ a scholarship from a cisgender athlete,” Hope Jackson, the deputy national campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.

“While he opines about the sanctity of women’s sports and breaking the glass ceiling, he has done nothing to close the gender pay gap or invest in women’s sports across Tennessee,” Jackson added. “Lee has no interest in equity, choosing instead to fear-monger and demonize children in his state. What he needs to understand is that 60% of Trump voters say transgender people should be able to live freely and openly. States that threaten to violate that principle have stared down billions in revenue losses as a result.”

Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement that the bill would jeopardize students’ “mental health, physical well-being, and ability to access educational opportunities compatible to their peers.’

“Governor Lee’s dramatic statement regarding transgender athletes is flat out wrong,” Weinberg said. “Despite the fact that trans people of all ages have been participating in sports consistent with their gender at all levels for years, we simply have not seen any dominance by trans athletes at any level of competition…. Advocates for women and girls in sports, including the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women Leaders in College Sports, do not believe trans girls competing in girls’ sports is problematic. These groups support trans-inclusive policies and oppose efforts to exclude transgender students from participating in sports.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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