Delegate Roger Conley, R-Wood, relied on the Bible as he argued for a bill to prevent transgender children from playing on teams based on how they identify themselves. "My God does not make mistakes," Conley said.

Although lawmakers can’t point to any problems related to transgender kids playing sports in West Virginia, that hasn’t stopped them from pushing a bill that doctors and other opponents say will create some of those problems.

House Bill 3293, sponsored by Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, would require school districts to check kids’ birth certificates to verify their sex assigned at birth before allowing them to play on single-sex sports teams. If birth certificates aren’t available, school districts would need physicians to confirm the children’s “unaltered internal and external reproductive anatomy.”

Opponents including LGBTQ+ people, advocates for their civil rights, pediatricians and psychologists say the bill perpetuates harmful myths about trans kids, who are already more likely to be harassed. The measures in the bill could invite bullying of girls who are tall or more muscular, and could subject all kids to the invasive experience of having to show their genitalia to a doctor to play on a sports team.

Wheeling City Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum, a transgender woman, noted that many trans children already feel isolated. Growing up in Ohio, she was home-schooled, in part because school was unsafe for trans kids.

“This is an attack on the transgender community and only perpetuates and furthers the fear-based stigma that trans people face every single day,” she said.

Lawmakers — who have said they know of no issues in West Virginia relating to transgender kids’ participation in sports — still say trans girls who are assigned male at birth have a competitive advantage in sports. Ketchum said that argument is not fact-based. She added that parents are more likely than their children to have a problem with trans kids participating.

“Trans kids are not looking to do anything but play a sport they love and compete fairly with their peers,” she said.

The bill is also opposed by the LGBTQ+ rights group Fairness West Virginia, the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the West Virginia Psychological Association, the West Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and most Democrats in the House of Delegates.

‘Competitive advantage’

Trans kids attend schools throughout West Virginia and so are likely to already be participating in sports. In a 2017 report, the Williams Institute at the University of South California estimated that except for the District of Columbia, West Virginia had the highest rate of trans kids ages 13-17, with 1.04%, or about 1,150 kids. They estimated that nationwide, 0.7% of youths ages 13 to 17 — about 150,000 young people — would identify as transgender. 

Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas

Hanna, the bill sponsor, didn’t return a call and email, and didn’t speak to the bill during floor debate in the House of Delegates Thursday. The bill passed there, in a 78-20 vote with mainly Republican support, and now goes to the state Senate for consideration.

State legislatures across the country are considering similar bills. According to NPR, citing the LGBTQ+ rights group Freedom for All Americans, lawmakers introduced about 45 similar bills this year, compared to two in 2019. A similar law in Idaho was suspended by a federal court judge. Similar bills have been approved this month in states including Mississippi, Tennessee and South Dakota.

One of the West Virginia bill co-sponsors, Delegate Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, said he hadn’t spoken to any national groups advocating for the legislation, but arrived at his own opinion through online research and watching sports. 

“I have not talked to any individual via phone or email concerning this, other than people have emailed me and said, ‘hey, don’t support the bill,’” Longanacre said.

Longanacre compared transgender girls participating in girls sports to Russia “doping” athletes for the Olympic Games. He noted that girls participating in sports may be eligible for college scholarships.

“I liked the bill because it injects fairness into the process whereby, you know, my 15-year-old daughter, your 16-year-old daughter, for example, as a junior in high school, or a sophomore in high school, does not have to compete against the 6-foot-2 biological male, for that same scholarship,” he said.

But during a House Judiciary Committee meeting last week, Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, told lawmakers there is no evidence that transgender girls have a competitive advantage. 

“Transgender girls, like all girls, have a variety of different bodies,” she said. “They have a variety of different talents. They have a variety of different interests. Some of them will be tall. Some of them are short. Some of them are fast. Some of them are slow. Some of them will have excellent hand-eye coordination. Others will not.”

In a 2011 report, the NCAA stated that the “assumption that all male-bodied people are taller, stronger, and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people is not accurate.”

They recommended that policies respect all people’s right to privacy, including medical privacy, and recommended that one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a “male-to-female student-athlete” competes on a women’s team, but that trans girls who haven’t begun hormone therapy shouldn’t participate on girls teams.

But the NCAA added that transgender students “challenge educators to rethink an understanding of gender as universally fixed at birth.”

“Educators in collegiate athletics programs must develop thoughtful and informed practices that provide opportunities for all students, including transgender students, to participate in sports,” they wrote. “These practices must be based on sound medical science, which shows that male-to-female transgender athletes do not have any automatic advantage over other women.”

That didn’t stop supporters of the West Virginia bill, including House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, from continuing to assert during debate that trans girls have a competitive advantage.

Under questioning from Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, Ellington said he wasn’t aware of any instances of transgender kids playing sports causing issues in West Virginia.

Several high school girls coaches told Mountain State Spotlight they hadn’t run into any issues as well, but declined to comment on the specific legislation.

Mike Parrish, athletic director at North Marion High School, said generally boys are stronger and faster. 

“I’m staying out of hot water on that one,” said Parrish, a longtime girls’ basketball coach. “Maybe ten years ago it might be easy to comment on things like that but the way things are today, everything you say is a touchy situation.”

Under questioning from Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, Ellington also said he had not spoken to any transgender groups.

The bill requires kids to play on single-sex sports teams consistent with the sex on their original birth certificates, not birth certificates that have been changed to reflect gender identity. Young asked whether kids who changed their names on their birth certificates could still play. Ellington said yes.

“So that’s allowed, we’re just worried about their genitals,” Young said.

Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, argues against the transgender sports bill Thursday on the House of Delegates floor. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

Oakley, of the Human Rights Campaign, said there’s “no harm here that’s being addressed by a piece of legislation like this. But there is harm perpetrated by it.”

She said that trans youth experience high rates of anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide, particularly when they are not supported by adults in their lives. She added that “having just one supportive adult in a trans youth’s life can make a tremendous difference.”

She also rebutted the idea that boys would pretend to be transgender girls to play girls sports. She said “given the amount of discrimination that transgender youth face, it’s really extremely difficult to imagine that that’s something that anybody would do.”

Health and happiness

During debate on the House floor on Thursday, supporters of the bill argued that the gender listed on birth certificates is accurate.

“We’re not trying to discriminate,” said Ellington, a bill co-sponsor. “We’re just saying that’s what your gender is.” 

Delegate Roger Conley, R-Wood, pointed to a Bible verse about man being made in the image of God.

“My God does not make mistakes,” he said.

But Dr. Shelia Robinett, a clinical psychologist and board member of the West Virginia Psychological Association, said in an interview that some kids are born with an innate sense of gender that doesn’t match up with their reproductive organs, which can make them more prone to psychological stress.

Dr. Shelia Robinett

But they become happier and develop better mental health when they live as the gender that aligns with their sense of self, which may include going through procedures and hormonal treatment, according to Robinett.

“From a clinical perspective, what’s on the birth certificate is irrelevant,” she said. “It’s how they identify psychologically.”

“And that’s how it should be, as far as respecting their psychological well-being.”

Like Oakley, she noted that transgender people are already more at risk for depression, anxiety and suicide, and said even introducing the legislation makes that problem worse.

“That is a result of the experience of discrimination in society,” she said. “That is because of things like discriminatory policies, bullying, harassment, rejection, violence, verbal harassment, and so on and so forth.”

She noted people of all genders have varying body types and hormone levels.

“The last time I checked, nobody uses their penis to bat a baseball,” she said.

In a letter to lawmakers, the West Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics agreed that the legislation would cause harm.

“The vast majority of the people this bill will harm are school kids who just want to play on a sports team,” wrote Dr. Lisa Costello, president of the chapter. “Attempting to exclude them causes unnecessary harm to their overall physical, mental and social well-being, and tries to address a problem that does not threaten anyone.”

Also during floor debate Thursday, Delegate Margitta Mazzocchi, R-Logan, said the legislation “protects” little girls who feel self-conscious about their bodies.

But if this bill passes, Robinett said, the bill would create more body image problems among youth. Parents or coaches of teams playing against a cisgender girl, meaning a girl assigned female at birth, could say that girl doesn’t look feminine enough to be a girl, perhaps if she’s especially tall or muscular, and request that girl be subjected to providing her birth certificate or a genital examination. 

“That just seems kind of like a really invasive violation of privacy in order to play a sport,” she said. 

Kat Williams, a Marshall University history professor who has written two books about women’s sports, said sports help girls build confidence and leadership skills, so it’s crucial that trans girls and cisgender girls have equal opportunity. 

“Legally requiring discrimination in the state is an embarrassment,” she said. “And to do it under the name of women’s sports is infuriating.”

She said that if lawmakers were concerned about fairness in sports, they would focus on existing inequities between girls and boys sports teams, including pay inequity in professional sports, and regular sexual abuse of girls by coaches.

“Why are these guys all of a sudden concerned about women’s sports?” she said. “They haven’t shown a concern about it in the past. Where is their concern when women’s softball at local Little League has some crappy field with weeds growing in it and boys Little League baseball has a beautiful field?”

She also noted that trans people have been participating in organized high school and college sports for decades. 

“Tell me, ‘why now?’” she said. “Why is this a problem? What has happened?”

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.