Ask both sides what the debate over transgender student-athletes’ inclusion in sports comes down to and they will likely give the same answer: fairness.
Rep. Michelle Davis (above), R-Whiteland, has authored House Bill 1041 in an attempt to require non-postsecondary schools to identify teams as either male, female or co-ed and bar transgender girls or women (those who are born male but identify as female) from competing in girls’ or women’s athletics.
The Indiana House Education Committee debated and heard testimony for over three hours before approving the bill Monday, sending it to the full House for consideration.
Supporters of the bill claim it will ensure fairness in women’s sports. They argue transgender girls still have the physical advantages boys have over non-transgender girls.
Davis touched on her experience as a basketball player who received a scholarship to play at Ball State University.
“I would then play the boys who were my age that had gotten cut from their school teams. I was the worst player on that court,” Davis said of her time in high school. “I would then go back to my girls’ teams and be the best player.”
During testimony, a mother of four competitive swimmers, Heather Ruble, said in the last few years, one of her sons began swimming faster than his sister who was four years older.
“He was faster not because he worked harder, not because he practiced longer, and not because he wanted it more,” Ruble said. “He was simply faster because through the physical changes that were taking place during adolescence, biological males quickly overtake biological females.”
Opponents of the bill say the fairness at stake is that of students to be able to compete on the team that matches their gender identity.
“The debate should be about equality and fairness within school systems to make sure that all kids, no matter how they identify and how they were born, are able to participate in school sports,” said Drew Anderson, director of communications for the Indiana Democratic Party.
Recent surveys have suggested the ability to play sports may be beneficial for transgender students as transgender college athletes reported better well being than transgender non-athletes.
And across the country, the percentage of high schoolers playing sports since 2011 has increased for girls and decreased for boys, leaving some to argue transgender girls have not negatively impacted participation.
This, however, does not account for athletes that may be discouraged by competing against transgender athetes, but continue to do so anyways.
While those opposed to HB 1041 say there is limited proof it is an issue in Indiana – Davis herself said she only knew of one incident – those in support say it is an emerging trend nationwide and Indiana should prevent it from ever happening.
In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana won a case claiming a transgender boy attending high school in Evansville was denied his rights because the school did not permit him to use the boys’ bathrooms.
The Indiana ACLU is also currently suing the Martinsville school district on behalf of a middle schooler in what is a similar case. The student could not use male restrooms or play boys’ soccer.
During testimony, Kit Malone and Katie Blair, both representing the group, spoke in opposition to the bill. Malone pointed to already strict rules for Indiana high schoolers wanting to compete according to their gender identity instead of birth identity.
Currently, the Indiana High School Athletic Association requires a committee to consider waivers students fill out on a case-to-case basis. The commissioner, Paul Neidig, testified and explained a transgender girl, among other things, would have to prove she “does not have muscle mass or bone density greater than the equivalent-aged girl.”
Neidig suggested the bill was not clear enough on what the grievance procedure would be and how the IHSAA would be involved. He said there could be potential conflict in which a school designates a team as co-ed but the IHSAA designates it as only male or female.
Across the United States
In 2020, Hecox v. Little was filed, claiming a bill in Idaho similar to HB 1041 was unconstitutional.
The author of the Idaho bill, Rep. Barbara Edhart, came in support of Davis’ bill.
“This legislation is about competition. And it’s about winning. It’s as simple as that,” Edhart said. “If it wasn’t about competition, and it wasn’t about winning, then players wouldn’t get cut and coaches wouldn’t get fired.”
During the court case regarding Edhart’s bill, expert witness Joshua Safer, MD, contended that once testosterone levels are lowered, “there is no inherent reason why [a transgender woman’s] physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman.”
Shafer also cited a 2015 study that found “transgender women run distance races at approximately the same level, for their respective gender, both before and after gender transition.” The study, however, examines the times of only eight runners – with less than half of the times verified – and does not control for training, injuries, race conditions or race courses.
Professor Gregory Brown, Ph.D., another expert witness in the case, disagreed, saying, “the effects of puberty in males… are not completely reversed by suppressing testosterone secretion and administering estrogen during gender transition procedure in males.”
The law is not currently in effect and the lawsuit is still being heard.
Movements Advancement Project, a think tank focused on LGBTQ rights,lists eight states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas – that currently limit what teams transgender students can compete on.
Like Indiana, these states have a Republican governor and Republican majorities in their House and Senate.
A review article published in 2020 looked at the effect of testosterone suppression and if it removed athletic and physical advantages held by biologically males.
The article claimed muscle mass, lean body mass, strength and bone density, among other characteristics, are not impacted enough by testosterone suppression to remove the advantage held by transgender women over non-transgender women.
Last year, a systematic review of studies on the subject determined “hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months.” One of the authors was medical physicist Joanna Harper, who also authored the 2015 study on distance runners.
Recently, according to The Guardian, Harper argued transgender women should first have their testosterone under five nmol/L for a year (women are generally between .5 and 2.4 nmol/L), saying it would create a “small enough [advantage] that trans women and cis women can have equitable and meaningful sport.”
Most, if not all, of the studies involve adults, leaving the question of how testosterone suppression affects minors more open-ended. The studies also do not grapple with the possibility of children that take puberty blockers before they enter puberty.
During testimony, Dr. Lauren Bell, speaking on behalf of the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, opposed the bill.
“[I]t would harm children in Indiana and further marginalize transgender youth who are already at higher risk of depression and other serious mental health issues,” Bell said.
Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, asked Bell if males have biological advantages in sports, to which Bell answered by saying, “There are a broad array of different advantages to any given person to participate in a sport. And there are also disadvantages for any given person.”
HB 1041’s future
Legislation that deals with this issue is an emerging nationwide trend, with Indiana Republicans joining in.
But do polls reveal an American public that supports HB 1041 and its doppelgangers across the country?
In 2019, Heritage Action found 62% of Americans didn’t think transgender women should be allowed to play on female teams, while 25% did.
Last year, Gallup asked if transgender athletes should play on teams according to their birth gender or gender identity, with the results being 62% and 34%, respectively.
These answers, however, differ greatly with a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from 2021. It found an America split down the middle, with 47% saying it should come down to gender identity and 48% disagreeing.
They also asked survey respondents if they “support a bill that prohibits transgender student athletes from joining sports teams that match their gender identity.” Sixty-seven percent said no.
The committee voted to advance HB 1041 to the House floor where Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said it will be largely supported by House Republicans.
The committee hearing Monday, however, indicated not all Republicans will.
Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, proposed an amendment that ultimately failed, which “would require schools to develop a local athletic participation policy… in consultation with medical and mental health experts,” instead of banning transgender girls from playing in girls’ sports.
As shown by the extensive number of testimonies from both sides and the loud chants the gallery broke into after the vote, the issue has clearly been deemed important by not only the state legislators, but the general public.
HB 1041’s fate is still to be determined, but whether it becomes law or not, the reaction will be similar.
To some, fairness will have won out, while to others, it will have been defeated.