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Texas bill banning transgender students in school sports heads to governor’s desk

Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will sign the bill, which would make Texas the 10th state with such a law.
Image: Texas Legislature Returns For Third Special Session
LGBTQ rights supporters gather at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Sept. 20 to protest Republican-led efforts to pass legislation that would restrict transgender student-athletes' participation.Tamir Kalifa / Getty Images file

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is poised to sign a bill barring transgender youth from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identity.

The measure requires public schools from elementary to collegiate levels to assign athletes based on the sex noted on their birth certificates “at or near the time of birth.”

A trans sports ban bill cleared the Republican-controlled House 76-54 on Thursday, then went to the state Senate on Friday, where it passed 19-12. After returning to the House for reconciliation, it was approved a final time 76-61. 

It now heads to Abbott, who has indicated he intends to sign it. 

The University Interscholastic League in Texas, which oversees interscholastic competition in the state, has had a rule in place for five years that requires students to participate on school sports teams in accordance with the gender listed on their birth certificate, but Abbott said during a Fox News town hall in April that “the Texas Legislature is working on a bill to codify that, which I will sign.” 

The approved measure negates a current UIL regulation that lets transgender students compete if they’ve received a court order allowing them to change the gender marker on their birth certificate.

Abbott, a Republican, placed a sports ban on the agenda for all three special legislative sessions ordered this year. It sailed through the Senate multiple times but repeatedly stalled in the House. 

“That it’s taken them four sessions in a GOP trifecta shows how serious the opposition to this bill is,” said Kate Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ advocacy organization.

Abbott has been enthusiastic about a ban, Oakley said, because “the governor has an eye toward higher office and is being challenged from the right.”

The measure was also an attempt by Republican lawmakers “to show they’ve done something,” Oakley added. “They’ve got a failed electrical grid and a Covid crisis, but they’re gerrymandering and attacking trans kids and reproductive rights.”

Abbott did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

Rachel Gonzales, a Dallas mom whose 11-year-old daughter, Libby, is transgender, said Republicans in Austin are taking advantage of a distracted public. 

“It’s easier to rally the base with B.S. and fear because reasonable people aren’t paying attention,” she said. “Instead of people talking about all the things [legislators] are not doing, it’s like, ‘Look at this shiny thing.’”

Libby testified before the House on Wednesday, telling the committee she had been coming to the Texas Capitol to defend her rights since she was 6.

“It’s always the same argument, and it's always discrimination,” she said. “If you don’t want to understand us, at least don’t keep our families, teachers and coaches from supporting us.”

Gonzales recalled the “ugly vitriol” at the Capitol that day. “People were yelling at us, calling me a child abuser,” she said. “We’ve been at this for a while, and I’ve never seen it this bad.”

She and her children ended up hiding in Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Crockett’s office, she said. 

“Aside from the emotional impact, it felt really scary,” Gonzales said. “People are acting awful.” 

Texas has one of the largest transgender populations in the United States, a 2016 report from the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated. It also has reported the most killings of transgender people of any state, The 19th reported last month.

“My daughter is a trans Latinx kid in Texas — and she’s going to grow up to be a trans Latinx woman,” Gonzales said. “These lawmakers are emboldening violence by voting on whether transgender people have a right to exist and live their lives.” 

She said her family wouldn’t consider leaving the state when so many others can’t: “Someone has to stay and fight.”

“Unless there was a bill that would put us in jail or take our daughter away,” Gonzales added. “Then, I’d be like, ‘We need an exit strategy.’”

After a bill failed to clear the House Public Education Committee, which has jurisdiction on the issue, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, created a special 15-member committee to address unspecified issues “relating to the constitutional rights of Texans,” according to a news release.

A sports ban was put before the new committee, which quickly moved it ahead.

“This is all about girls and protecting them in our UIL sports,” Republican state Rep. Valoree Swanson, a lead sponsor, said during debate on the House floor Thursday.

“We need a statewide level playing field,” Swanson added. “It’s very important that we, who got elected to be here, protect our girls.”

State Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock who sponsored the bill in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, defended it, Austin's KVUE-TV reported, by asking, “What if a boy decided that day he was a girl, just to get a nefarious advantage?”

Mary Elizabeth Castle with Texas Values, a group supporting the ban, told reporters Wednesday that more than 22,000 emails had been sent to Texas lawmakers “in support of this legislation that will protect female sports,” though she did not indicate how many messages were from state residents.

“We’ve heard from UIL also that they’re getting more and more calls with concerns about changes in birth certificates and males competing in female sports,” Castle added.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Equality Texas have alleged that supporters of the measure have yet to provide any examples of transgender athletes in Texas jeopardizing fairness in women’s sports. The UIL previously testified it does not have a way of tracking how many transgender athletes are currently participating in sports across Texas, according to NBC affiliate KXAN-TV in Austin.

Rebecca Marques, HRC’s Texas state director, condemned lawmakers for targeting children “for no reason other than to score political points.”

“Texas legislators seem to take pride in passing discriminatory bills without any concern for the impact on Texans and the state’s growing negative national reputation,” Marques said in a statement. 

She added that debate around the legislation had already negatively affected transgender youth, “impacting mental health and perpetuating negative stereotypes and discrimination against them.”

Between January and August, when bills targeting transgender Texans were being debated in the statehouse, calls from LGBTQ young people to a crisis hotline skyrocketed by 150 percent, according data released by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization. About 4,000, or 36 percent of all contacts from Texas, came from transgender or nonbinary youths.

Nationwide, more than 130 anti-transgender bills in 33 states have been introduced in the 2020-2021 legislative session, according to HRC.

Some 52 were introduced in Texas, according to Equality Texas, more than any other state. One measure would have made it a felony for parents to allow their transgender children to receive puberty blockers or other transition-related care. The bill, which did not pass, could have included punishments ranging from jail time to having children taken away.

Eight other states have passed transgender sports bans, according to the Movement Advancement Project: Idaho, West Virginia, Montana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. (South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed a ban in March and then issued two executive orders to much the same effect.)

Lawsuits have been filed against Idaho's and West Virginia's laws, with court orders preventing enforcement of either pending further review.

At the same time, a group of cisgender high school athletes has filed suit in Connecticut, arguing that by being forced to race against transgender competitors, they have been deprived of wins, titles and access to scholarships.

In April, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said it “firmly and unequivocally supports the opportunity for transgender student-athletes to compete in college sports.” 

The organization’s board of governors cautioned states interested in hosting tournaments that “only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination” would be considered.

That same month, a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll indicated two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans, including 66 percent of Republicans, opposed anti-transgender sports bans.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, made a so-called bathroom bill a legislative priority in 2017, but it failed to pass during either the regular session or a special session.  

“They found out in 2017 how unappealing it is to be perceived as having a vendetta against trans kids,” Oakley said. “The public is getting tired of this boogeyman.”

Oakley wouldn’t confirm whether HRC planned to be part of any legal action against the ban.

“There have been lawsuits filed in other parts of the country over laws like this,” she said. “We may see that’s next in Texas.”

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