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Transgender teen sues Tennessee over school sports ban

The plaintiff, Luc Esquivel, 14, said the law will bar him from competing on the boys’ golf team.
Luc and Shelley Esquivel live in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Luc and Shelley Esquivel live in Knoxville, Tennessee.Shawn Poynter / ACLU

Civil rights groups on Thursday filed a lawsuit against a Tennessee law that restricts transgender students’ participation in sports, arguing that the law is discriminatory and unconstitutional. 

The law, which took effect in March on the same day Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed it, requires student athletes and their parents to prove the sex they were assigned at birth, either through an “original” birth certificate or some other form of evidence. As a result, it bars transgender students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identities.

Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of Luc Esquivel, a 14-year-old freshman at Farragut High School in Knoxville. Luc, a trans boy, said he was hoping to play on the boys’ golf team at Farragut, but the law will bar him from doing so. 

“I was really looking forward to trying out for the boys’ golf team and, if I made it, training and competing with and learning from other boys and improving my game,” Luc said, according to a press release. “Then, to have the legislature pass a law that singled out me and kids like me to keep us from being part of a team, that crushed me, it hurt very much. I just want to play, like any other kid.”

Luc’s mother, Shelley Esquivel, said she is still angry over the law’s passage, because high school sports play an important role in helping kids thrive.

Luc Esquivel, 14, said that Tennessee’s transgender sports restriction is stopping him from competing on his high school’s golf team.Shawn Poynter / ACLU

“I know how much Luc was looking forward to playing on the boys’ golf team,” she said, according to the press release. “It’s heartbreaking to see him miss out on this high school experience, and it is painful for a parent to see their child subjected to discrimination because of who they are. I’m proud Luc is taking this step, and his father and I are with him all the way.”

Neither the governor’s office nor the attorney general’s office have responded to requests for comment. 

Earlier this year, Lee said that he supported the bill because transgender girls “will destroy women’s sports.” He said that allowing trans girls to compete in girls’ sports “will ruin the opportunity for girls to earn scholarships,” though advocates have said that there are no examples of that actually happening. 

Supporters of the laws also argue that trans girls have an advantage over cisgender girls, though those who oppose them say there has been no research on young trans athletes to support that claim.

Tennessee is one of 10 states that have passed laws restricting trans students’ participation in school sports, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank. An additional 21 states have considered similar bills in 2021, according to the ACLU. 

Tennessee has been dubbed the “state of hate” because it has considered and passed so many anti-trans bills this year. In May, Lee signed multiple bills related to LGBTQ people. One law requires businesses to post a notice if they allow transgender people to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, though a judge blocked the law from taking effect in July after the ACLU filed suit.

Lee signed another bill that bars trans students and school staff from using public school restrooms that align with their gender identity. It requires schools to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to students, faculty or staff who are “unwilling or unable” to use the public restroom or changing room that aligns with their birth sex. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, filed suit against the law on behalf of two transgender children in August.

Tennessee also became the second state, after Arkansas, to pass a law restricting or banning certain gender-affirming health care for transgender minors.

Thursday's lawsuit against the trans sports ban argues that it violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal funds. Both are arguments that the Department of Justice used in statements it filed in June in support of a lawsuit against West Virginia’s trans sports ban, which Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, signed in April.

Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ and HIV Project, said the suit in Tennessee is the ACLU’s fifth challenge to an anti-trans law that has passed this year. 

“We will continue to fight these relentless attacks on trans youth,” Cooper said, according to a press release. “There is no reason, apart from the legislature’s desire to express its disapproval of transgender people, to keep Luc from playing on the boys’ golf team.”

Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, added that when Tennessee lawmakers passed the law, they could not find an example of a Tennessee student “facing any harm from a transgender athlete playing sports.”

“However, the emotional cost of this law to transgender student athletes is tremendous,” Weinberg said in a statement. “We stand with trans students across the state as we challenge this law, and we urge other trans student athletes and their families facing such discrimination to contact us.”

Courts have yet to definitively weigh in on the issue, but federal judges have blocked trans sports bans in West Virginia and Idaho pending arguments, and a federal court in Connecticut dismissed in April a challenge to policies that allow trans girls to participate on girls’ sports teams.

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