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Proposed Ban On Transgender Athletes In Women's School Sports Meets Fierce Opposition

Beth O'Connor
Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
In this May 19, 2011 photo, State Rep. Beth O'Connor, R-Berwick, speaks with a legislator in the House Chamber at the State House in Augusta, Maine. O'Connor has proposed legislation that would limit the ability of transgender women to compete in women's school sports in Maine.

Proposed Maine legislation that would bar transgender women from participating in women's school sports faced fierce opposition on Thursday from students, school groups, athletics associations and others.

The bills are part of a larger anti-transgender agenda that's showing up in state houses across the country.

Maine lawmakers took testimony on two bills Thursday. One would bar transgender women from participating in women's interscholastic and intermural sports at school.

The other would prohibit them from participating in any athletic program or activity designated for females at schools that receive federal money.

Republican Rep. Beth O'Connor of Berwick, who sponsored one of those bills, argued that transgender females have an advantage in women's athletics, which she says is unfair to other competitors.

"When one considers the ramifications of opening women's sports to biological males, we change the playing field that women fought so hard to obtain. And this is, in my opinion, is discrimination that hurts biological women. I'm here to support women and women's rights and what we've earned," she says.

That message was echoed by activists, former athletes and medical professionals — mostly from out-of-state — who say that athletes assigned male at birth are naturally stronger and faster. If they're allowed to compete, they say it could lead athletes assigned female at birth to lose out on opportunities such as scholarships.

The bills are similar to others sponsored by Republicans around the country.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 120 anti-transgender bills have been introduced this year — more than any other year on record. About half of them would ban transgender women and girls from participating in women's athletics. And in recent weeks, governors in states including West Virginia and Alabama have signed them into law.

In written testimony, the Human Rights Campaign describes the issue as an "invented problem that relies on misinformation, harmful stereotypes, and prejudice against transgender people."

And EqualityMaine Program Director Gia Drew says the legislation will only harm transgender youth, who she says already feel ostracized.

"The idea that these bills would protect girls and women from other girls and women, in the name of fairness and sport, is absurd," Drew says.

"Their argument, which has been used to violently attack and silence transgender people for decades, is that transgender girls and women aren't girls and women at all. That we're doing this —whatever this is — to fool you, so we can play on a middle school volleyball team, to play kickball in elementary school, or play left field on a high school softball team. Really?"

Lane Joslin, a high school sophomore from Kittery who is transgender, says playing on her school's girls soccer team is one of the highlights of her day and has helped her feel accepted.

"Please don't deny other transgender girls the opportunity to have these experiences, and the ability to be on a team — just having fun and being active, and learning about sportsmanship. Everyone should be able to participate, regardless of their gender identity," she says.

Joslin was joined in opposition to the bill by several other students, teachers, family members, and groups including the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Maine Psychological Association.

The Maine Principals' Association already instituted a transgender participation policy back in 2013, and the association says the bills would force schools to "violate the Maine Human Rights Act and Title IX by requiring that they discriminate against student athletes based on gender identity."

Attorney General Aaron Frey told members of the judiciary committee that the bills would likely violate the equal protection clause of the constitution.

While similar laws have passed in other states, the legislation appears to face tough odds in Maine.

At Thursday's hearing, Education Commissioner Pender Makin spoke on behalf of Governor Mills against the bills, saying that Maine is a state that, "treats all individuals with dignity and respect," and that denying transgender women the opportunity to play sports "undermines our fundamental values of equity."