💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Listen to the audio version of this story.
A new bill being debated in Harrisburg would ban transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams. Scientists say the idea is not supported by evidence, and advocates are railing against the proposed law.
Northeast Philly state Rep. Martina White is a prime sponsor of the legislation, along with four other House Republicans. The bill got a preliminary hearing Monday morning, and lawmakers say they’re planning to formally introduce it next week.
“Introducing a bill that would bar trans athletes from participating in sports is simply cruel,” said Naiymah Sanchez, transgender justice coordinator at the ACLU of Pa., “and speaks volumes about the priorities of these lawmakers, who are creating a problem that simply doesn’t exist.”
Governor Tom Wolf told Billy Penn he’ll veto the legislation if it makes it to his desk.
A legislative memo cited “inherent differences between men and women,” and suggested the new law would protect young girls at public schools and colleges from unfair competition.
“Even the world’s best female Olympic athletes would lose to literally thousands of young boys and grown men on any given day,” White said at the Monday hearing.
When he took office in January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order declaring trans youth should have access to “the restroom, the locker room or school sports” that correspond with their gender.
Since then, roughly 35 bills have been introduced by state legislators to prohibit trans girls and women from competing in women’s sports. That’s an explosion compared to 2019, when there were just two similar bills up for consideration.
But there’s actually no evidence to suggest trans women have an advantage over cisgender women in sports. Especially when you’re talking about children.
“There’s no clear, consistent relationship between testosterone levels and athleticism,” said Katrina Karkazis, a senior visiting fellow at Yale University who wrote a myth-busting book on the topic. “We call it a zombie fact.”
Leonard Bonarek’s child came out as trans to him a few months ago. It hasn’t led to many changes for the West Philly family, aside from the adjusting to they/them pronouns and using a gender-neutral nickname.
Bonarek recently signed up the 8-year-old for a co-ed little league baseball team, and found the process seamless.
“There’s another gender-nonconforming kid on their team, and when they did introductions at practice they asked all the kids for pronouns,” said Bonarek, 46. “It was a complete non-issue.”
The Olympics started allowing trans athletes to compete in 2004. Canada’s national sport governing body, U SPORT, did the same in 2018. In the U.S., 16 states have secured some protections for trans students in sports.
“This has been happening for a long time, the inclusion of trans youth,” said Karkazis, the Yale researcher. “If women’s sports were going to implode, it would have happened 10 years ago.”
As it stands for Pennsylvania public schools and universities, the decision is left up to principals. The Pa. Interscholastic Athletic Association’s official policy reads: “Where a student’s gender is questioned or uncertain, the PIAA will accept the principal’s decision as to the student’s gender.”
Meanwhile, the Philly school district has a gender-affirming policy on the books: trans and gender-nonconforming students can play sports and participate in physical education classes “in a manner consistent with their gender identity.”
Rep. White’s newly proposed law argues that the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports would amount to a violation of Title IX — the federal statute protecting students from gender-based discrimination.
It hinges on the false idea that men are naturally better at sports than women, because testosterone. “”Biological males will always have physical advantages over women,” White asserted at the Monday hearing.
This idea has been disproven, as explained in a 2017 analysis published by Sports Medicine.
“Currently, there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition,” the study reads. “Competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”
Testosterone levels can also be elevated in cisgender women, of whom roughly 10% have been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Plus, author Karkazis noted, many trans girls are young enough that they haven’t yet gone through puberty. Some of those who have may already be using hormone blockers or hormone replacement therapy.
Even if the bill makes it to the floor and sees a vote in its favor, it’s unlikely to become law — since Gov. Wolf has promised to veto it.
“Any legislation designed to deny opportunities to certain children is both disturbing and dangerous,” said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger. “Trans youth should know that they belong, that they are valued and that their participation in school activities is welcomed.”