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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has signed a ban on transgender athletes into law, making Tennessee the third state this year to pass a law restricting transgender children from sports competitions.
Lee’s decision to sign the bill comes after similar legislation passed in Mississippi and Arkansas, and as elected Republicans have seized upon transgender inclusion as a potential wedge issue for future elections.
However, similar bills have failed in Utah and South Carolina, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem recently sent back a ban to lawmakers, asking them to remove restrictions on transgender college-age athletes.
Tennessee’s bill is one of 174 anti-LGBTQ bills being considered by state lawmakers this session, and one of more than 40 specifically targeting transgender athletes.
Yet critics in many states note that — with the exception of Connecticut, where the state’s high school athletic association is mired in an ongoing lawsuit — lawmakers in various states, including Tennessee, have failed to provide examples where transgender athletes in their own states have outperformed cisgender athletes or “taken away” opportunities for them.
“Governor Lee’s rush to sign this discriminatory anti-transgender bill is unfortunately no surprise given how Tennessee’s elected leaders have aggressively pushed a ‘Slate of Hate‘ against LGBTQ people for the last several years,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “By refusing to take heed of other anti-equality governors who have rejected similar legislation this year, Lee is exposing Tennessee to economic harm and expensive legal battles that will be paid for by taxpayers, and tarnishing the state’s reputation.”
David said the bill “legislates against a problem that simply doesn’t exist and targets transgender kids who are trying to navigate their adolescence.”
“Transgender kids are kids. Excluding and discriminating against them does great harm to them and it weakens the communities in which these children feel excluded and marginalized,” he continued. “The fight for equality comes in fits and starts, but it always moves forward and this is a fight that we will win.”
Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, called the anti-trans athlete bill “appalling.”
“Transgender people have the right to participate in sports consistent with who they are, just like everyone else. Denying this right is pure discrimination,” Weinberg said in a statement. “When Lee has made every effort to deny women the ability to make decisions about their own bodies, his grandstanding about protecting women’s rights by discriminating against transgender children is disingenuous at best. The marginalization of trans student athletes is rooted in the same kind of gender discrimination and stereotyping that has held back cisgender women athletes.”
Weinberg also vowed that the ACLU of Tennessee would sue to ensure the law does not disenfranchise transgender youth.
The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, criticized the bill, noting that the organization has already fielded more than 2,400 calls or contracts from youths in Tennessee struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation — a number likely to increase if transgender students are further excluded from school activities.
Research by The Trevor Project has shown that transgender and nonbinary youth who had at least one gender-affirming space had 25% reduced odds of attempting suicide, and banning trans children from athletics simply takes away the possibility of another affirming space.
“It is hard to keep up with the avalanche of anti-transgender bills, but please know that we will never give up fighting to protect transgender and nonbinary young people,” Sam Brinton, the vice president and advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement. “They deserve access to the same opportunities as their peers. This discriminatory policy is illegal.”
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