Bill targeting transgender athletes for exclusion receives a hearing in state House committee

Bill targeting transgender athletes for exclusion receives a hearing in state House committee

Sophomore Julie Katz speaks against HB 358 during Wednesday’s hearing.

Julie Katz came to Raleigh Wednesday to speak directly to the lawmakers who want to exclude her from women’s sports.

A 16-year-old transgender girl from Greensboro, Katz has been a gynmast, played tennis and volleyball — all, so far, without incident.

But House Bill 358 would bar transgender women from playing women’s intramural, public school, university sports in North Carolina. “Like all kids who love to be active, I have the right to play,” Katz said at a Wednesday hearing on the bill. “I’m better than some, not as talented as many. This bill says I can’t even sit on the bench.”

The bill, part of a wave of legislation targeting transgender youth filed by Republicans across the country, is opposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, more than 700 NCAA athletes and more than 400 North Carolina medical providers.

Wednesday’s hearing was for discussion only, so no votes were taken. Instead, it was primarily a venue for legislative proponents and opponents of the bill to make their cases and hear from the public.

Bill supporters say future of women’s sports is in jeopardy 

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mark Brody (R-Anson), said he expects it to be controversial but that it is a solution to a problem that can’t be ignored. “I expect that those who disagree with this bill will come forward and offer solutions,” Brody said. “And not a solution that says, ‘I don’t want to do anything.’”

Rep. Mark Brody (R-Anson)

Brody said it is important to make the standard policy in North Carolina that decisions about gender will be made according to “reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”

That’s not the standard used by most mainstream sports governing bodies.

The International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to compete at the highest level of international athletic competition since 2003. The NCAA has had a policy on inclusion of transgender athletes since 2011. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has had a similar policy since 2019. Each of those policies make exceptions for transgender athletes undergoing hormone therapy that suppresses testosterone. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Brody said he’s been in contact with both organizations and demanded their testosterone standards for determining participation, but hasn’t received them.

“What that tells me is one of two things,” Brody said. “They are hiding something or they don’t have something.”

Brody offered supporting documents from the American College of Pediatricians, a conservative splinter group that broke with the larger and widely respected American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 over that group’s support of the rights of gay and lesbian parents to adopt. 

The conservative group, which North Carolina Republicans also relied upon in their arguments supporting the controversial 2016 law known as HB2, unsuccessfully fought to keep same-sex marriage from becoming legal and supports so-called “conversion therapy,” a scientifically debunked practice now banned in 20 states.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin), another of the bill’s sponsors, eschewed scientific arguments to speak to his more personal reasons for supporting the bill.

“My primary motivation for all my bills in the General Assembly is, to some degree, my faith and the way I feel about things,” Dixon said.

Brody and Dixon invited Idaho State Rep. Barbara Ehardt to speak on the issue. Ehardt, a former college basketball player and coach, was the sponsor of a similar bill signed into law in Idaho last year and quickly blocked by a federal court.

“The State has not identified a legitimate interest served by the Act that the preexisting rules in Idaho did not already address,” wrote Judge David Nye in his preliminary injunction. “Other than an invalid interest of excluding transgender women and girls from women’s sports entirely, regardless of their physiological characteristics.”

Accepting just one “biological male” onto a women’s basketball team at the high school level sets a precedent for all positions in women’s sports to be usurped, and the elimination of women’s sports, Ehardt said. Legislation has to prevent that, she said.

Ehardt said she’s proud Idaho was the first state in the country to pass such a bill, though it immediately faced legal challenges. “There will be lawsuits, no mistake about it,” Ehardt said. “But let me tell you where the lawsuits are also going to come — from the moms and the dads of the girls whose positions have been taken by the biological males.”

The bill’s sponsors also invited Greg Brown, an exercise science professor from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Beth Stelzer, founder of the group Save Women’s Sports, to speak. Both made the argument that men and transgender women have inherent biological advantages that aren’t mitigated by gender transition and hormone therapy.

Physicians, athletic bodies cite science, record of success in defending inclusive policies

While there is controversy on the issue within the scientific community, most doctors and scientists working directly with transgender athletes say their work has shown testosterone suppression, and particularly the preemption of puberty, can level the playing field with regard to performance. 

That scientific conclusion forms the backbone of decisions rendered by bodies governing international sport that allow transgender athletes to compete with various caveats, usually involving the monitoring of testosterone levels.

Dr. Deanna Adkins was on hand at Wednesday’s hearing to testify to the efficacy of testosterone suppression.

Adkins is a pediatric endocrinologist who helped establish Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care at Duke University Hospital in 2015. One of the state’s most sought-after experts on gender transition, she has worked directly with transgender patients, primarily under the age of 21, since 2012, and has treated more than 425 people in gender transition. Many of those young patients were athletes who, she said, had no problem competing under the current policies but did not dominate their sports in the way proponents of the bill said is inevitable.

A clause in HB 358 cites and quotes the work of Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a Duke Law professor and former elite track and field athlete, on the biological differences between men and women and their importance to competition in sports.

Doriane Lambelet Coleman

But Coleman opposes the bill and others like it, saying lawmakers in a number of states have cherry-picked her work to make arguments that aren’t supported by science or the law. “If you’ve been an athlete, a competitive athlete, whether it’s just in high school or in college or in the elite ranks, there is no escaping the performance gap between male and female athletes,” Coleman said in an interview with Policy Watch Wednesday. “It’s not a myth. It’s a fact.”

But transgender women who have undergone hormone suppression to avoid a male puberty don’t have vast inherent advantages over athletes assigned female at birth, Coleman said. Pretending they do is also ignoring the latest available science. “It’s overly broad and probably unlawful to exclude them,” Coleman said.

“You have to pay attention to and be honest about biology in order to come to a solution on these issues,” Coleman said. “But you can come to a solution that is inclusive or a solution that is exclusive.”

Transgender-inclusive policies such as those of the NCAA and International Olympic Committee have worked for years without incident, Coleman said. To this point, there hasn’t been a problem in North Carolina. It is indeed important to protect women’s sports and Title IX, Coleman said, which has allowed women athletes to make great strides. But the inclusion of transgender athletes doesn’t have to mean the end of Title IX or women’s sports.

“There are politicians who see this as a wedge issue, a culture wars issue,” Coleman said. “Politicians do that.”

Republican political strategists have been open about using transgender rights as a wedge issue in the midterm elections, encouraging bills like HB 358 as a way to rally the conservative base and perhaps attract moderate parents from the suburbs. In his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference Stephen Miller, adviser to former President Donald Trump, touted just this strategy.

Coleman has been penning op-eds in opposition to such bills across the country that cite her work.

It’s easy to frame a complicated issue like transgender participation in sports in a simple and overly broad way, Coleman said — either exclude all transgender women as inherently superior “biological males” or exclude no one. But the issue is too complex for that, she said, and the most logical solution will likely displease both LGBTQ advocates who want no testing or gatekeeping, and people attached to a simple and binary idea of gender.

The truth, Coleman said, is that some standard will have to prevail that will likely concentrate on individuals’ transition history and the testing hormone levels. “Athletes, at the high school and collegiate and especially the elite levels, regularly undergo all kinds of testing in order to play,” Coleman said.

Whatever the standard, it will also need to work across state lines. A state-by-state fight on the issue won’t work on a practical level.

“The NCAA has a standard and it’s been in place for about ten years,” Coleman said. “They’ve added language saying they won’t hold events in places where all athletes can’t participate and aren’t respected. And it makes sense. If you have a soccer team on which there is a transgender woman who has satisfied all the requirements, you can’t have a situation where she can’t play in certain states. The NCAA doesn’t want to be in the business of holding an event in a circumstance like that. It would be a mess. A legal mess, a personal mess, a PR mess.”

Ultimately, Coleman said, a federal solution is probably going to be necessary — either through passage of the Equality Act or the resolution of cases from Idaho and Connecticut at the Supreme Court level. Until then, transgender athletes and their families will continue to have their identities argued over in courtrooms and state houses across the country.

NC families of trans athletes share their stories

Dozens of transgender people and their families attended Wednesday’s hearing to share their personal stories and argue against a bill they say is unnecessary.

Jennifer Olson

“Today we have heard from three or four supporters of this bill from out of our state,” said Jennifer Olson, the mother of a transgender daughter from Raleigh. “This issue of transgender girls playing sports on an all girl team is just not an issue. There are no lawsuits in North Carolina on this issue.”

The NCHSSA and NCAA don’t think there’s a problem with including transgender athletes, Olson said. Neither does her daughter’s school district.

“Our state is moving in the right direction,” Olson said. “We’re supporting trans youth.”

And not without existing restrictions designed to be sure the playing field is level, several parents of transgender children said.

Paula Horowitz Katz, who came from Greensboro with her daughter Julie, said she was shocked to hear proponents of the bill describe an imagined future wherein including transgender athletes leads to boys and men taking over every position on women’s teams.

“What is so shocking to me is that the average person doesn’t realize that for Julie to participate in volleyball she has to submit her lab work,” she said. “She has to prove that she is girl enough. And that’s just to be on an average club team. We’re not talking about elite athletes.”

“I would love to see this bizarre universe where we have all these dudes trying out for girls’ sports because they think they can kick a girl’s ass,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a world we’ll ever live in.”

The lawmakers who crafted these bills need to take the time to talk with actual transgender people and those who love, support and treat them, Paula Horowitz Katz said. They would welcome hard questions and difficult conversations. “If you will sit down with me and my family I’ll honor what you have to say and I’ll share our own personal experience,” she said.

Asked if he had spoken to any transgender people or their doctors before filing the bill, Brody admitted he did not.

This wasn’t the only thing he was working on, he said, and he didn’t have the time.