A New Arizona Bill Seeks to Ban Young Transgender Athletes From Female Sports Participation

The transgender flag.
The transgender flag. Wikimedia commons user torbakhopper
Last week, Arizona Representative Nancy Barto, a Republican from Phoenix, introduced a bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing in female sports in school.

The bill has drawn national ire from LGBTQ advocates, who say the bill peddles inaccurate rhetoric and jeopardizes children’s mental health.

Young transgender students say the fundamental argument behind the proposed legislation ignores the reality of their experience.

“When you get older, if you actually have hormones that are going through you, I can slightly, slightly see where they’re coming from,” said Lily, a 13-year-old transgender girl who ran cross country through her school earlier this year. “But for people like me who are on hormone blockers right now, for most of the people who are young and are playing sports that this is mostly going to affect, they don’t have the hormones flowing that people are saying give them an advantage.”

"Opportunities at Stake"

House Bill 2706, titled the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” would require both public and private schools to designate sports activities as co-educational, male, or female. Teams or sports for “females, women, or girls” would not be open to “students of the male sex.”

By heavily emphasizing biological sex as the criteria, under the bill, the only way a student could dispute this ban is if they provide a doctor’s statement indicating their sex solely on the basis of their chromosomal makeup, “internal and external reproductive anatomy,” and “normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone.”

It would forbid outside institutions from suing a school for barring a female transgender student from a sport, while simultaneously creating an avenue for students to file suits against schools who permit young transgender children to compete.

Barto said she decided to draft the bill after becoming concerned that young female students whose biological sex matches their gender identity would have an unfair disadvantage when competing against transgender female students.

“Policies allowing an unequal playing field are in force in Arizona now, because Arizona has not addressed it in statute,” Barto said in an emailed statement. “Women fought long and hard for the same opportunities as men in men sports which is why Title IX was put in place … Fractions of a second can count to qualify for state and regional meets and earn college scholarships. These are the kinds of opportunities that are at stake.” 
click to enlarge Representative Nancy Barto - AZLEG.GOV
Representative Nancy Barto

Barto referred to Selina Soule and Alanna Smith, two female high school runners in Connecticut, who are challenging protections for transgender athletes on this basis with the backing of the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit legal organization.

After repeatedly losing titles to transgender runners, the pair filed a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education last summer, claiming that Connecticut’s 2017 decision to allow transgender athletes to compete created an uneven playing field.

“All this happened in two years,” said Barto, referring to the 2017 Connecticut law. “That’s quick. The question should be why wait until Arizona girls experience the same unfairness before acting? It’s only a matter of time before these same issues emerge here.”

There’s currently no conclusive research to support the idea that allowing transgender athletes to compete on the team that matches their gender identity creates a competitive advantage, according to organizations like GLSEN, which works to end discrimination of LGBTQ people, and some medical doctors who research transgender individuals. But the issue of determining what’s “fair” remains one that athletic associations continue to grapple with as they attempt to develop policies that are both equitable and inclusive. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, for example, currently requires transgender female athletes to suppress the hormone testosterone for a year before competing, a policy that’s debated on both sides of the political spectrum.

Barto declined to point to any data on the prevalence of this issue or provide examples of the unfairness she described in Arizona.

Leaving Young Transgender Athletes Behind?

Arizona parents of transgender children, as well as transgender athletes themselves, said that placing their child would be not just psychologically, but physically inappropriate, and do little to create an equitable situation. Phoenix New Times spoke to four of these families, who all requested we use only their first names or a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation.

Vanessa, a mother living in the Phoenix metropolitan area, said her 8-year-old daughter, Zoë, who is transgender, first started telling her and her husband she was a girl as a toddler. Today, she has fully social transitioned, participating on both a girls soccer team and track club. She publicly presents and identifies as female, including using the women’s restroom at school.

“In her case, because she’s so young and she identified herself so young as being transgender, she’ll never go through boy puberty,” said Vanessa. “When she does get to the point where puberty is beginning, she’ll go on hormone blockers for a few years, so she can be sure that this is the path she wants to go down, and if so, then she’ll take [estrogen] hormones so she can continue down this path.”

Hormone blockers, or puberty blockers, are drugs used to postpone puberty in children. Transgender girls or non-binary individuals who were assigned male at birth can take the medicine, as prescribed by a doctor, to prevent the release of hormones that lead to puberty-related changes in their body, like voice-deepening and facial hair growth.

"Thinking of [Zoë] in middle school playing sports with boys would be completely inappropriate," Vanessa said.

Lily, the runner, is currently on hormone blockers and also plans to undergo estrogen hormone therapy, said Kat, her mother.

"I understand there’s some complexity [to the issue of school sports]," Kat said. "It’s not a black-and-white conversation. But unfortunately, our lawmakers in this state are trying to make it one.”

Others are concerned that the bill will work to shut transgender children out of sports entirely.

Currently in Arizona, for a transgender student to participate in a sport that is congruent with their gender identity, they must receive approval from the Arizona Interscholastic Association. The process, which approved its first students in 2014 but has received few requests since, requires students to compile letters of support from a health professional, school administrator, and their parents.

Even with these provisions, the process can be difficult and imperfect.

Jay, a 14-year-old transgender student living in Tucson, went through this process when she was beginning middle school. She wanted to run track on the girls team, and was eventually approved. But for the first few meets, she was still placed on the boys’ roster due to her given name and required to compete against the boys.

“They kind of outed her during their first event,” said David, Jay’s father, who requested both only be referred to by their first name. “They called her by her 'deadname' instead of Jay, and then suddenly everyone’s looking at my beautiful daughter. The staff didn’t know what to do. I don’t think they’d ever encountered this before. One of the coaches even told me one day, 'Boys should be boys and girls should be girls.'"

The pair said they eventually worked with Jay’s school and coaches to ensure she’d compete with girls in future meets. But Jay still hasn’t forgotten the experience, and quit the team shortly thereafter, avoiding sports for the rest of middle school.

“If this bill goes through, I’m just not gonna play sports,” said Jay, who eventually opted not to go on hormone blockers when she entered puberty. “I played on the boys team once, and that already made me feel so uncomfortable and embarrassed.”

Each of the four families New Times spoke to mentioned the psychological toll they believed the bill would have on their children by depriving them of their right to privacy and consequently forcing their children to out themselves as transgender.

“You’re forced into a bad position because you have to kind of choose between not coming out and participating in sports,” Lily said. “It’d be really upsetting, because I then don’t get to do something that everyone else is doing. I love being out there and running, I don’t care if I win or lose, I just like being out there running and seeing everyone else out there. “

Asaf Orr, transgender youth project director at National Center for Lesbian Rights, said denial in sports participation heightens the mental health risk for transgender children.

"This bill is inconsistent with best practices for including transgender athletes in high school sports, which Arizona has already adopted and which is working well,” Orr said. “There is no legitimate reason to exclude transgender youth from participating in high school sports, and doing so will only serve to harm vulnerable young people who need support."

As the bill works its way through the Legislature, Kat and Lily plan to leave the state.

“At this point, we’re looking to move,” Kat said. “Lily used to talk about being transgender, and now… she’s incredibly brave, but she’s navigating a world in Arizona that is not friendly to her. I’m done living in a state that is actively trying to harm my child. But I know not everyone has that privilege [of moving].

“We’re people just trying to pursue our lives,” she continued. “And I think all a transgender person wants is just to not have to explain themselves all the time. When you’re transgender, you’re always coming out.”

Twenty-two other Republican representatives have signed onto Barto's bill.
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.