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By Hannah Critchfield

For many student athletes, track meets are the culmination of weeks and months of hard work.

Practice, practice, practice might get you to the top of the podium– but that doesn’t mean all the endurance-building sprints or the weight-lifting repetitions are fun along the way. Competitions are where it all pays off.

For 15-year-old Asher, it’s different.

“Right now, me not being able to participate with the men does make things a lot harder for me,” he said. “There’s a sense of fear and unbelonging that comes up during those meets, and it detriments how you perform during it.”

Asher, who throws shot put and discus and requested North Carolina Health News only use his first name for his protection, is a transgender boy.

Because he attends a private school in Asheville under the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association, he has to compete against girls at track meets — the association’s policy requires student athletes play on teams that align with the sex written on their birth certificate, rather than their gender identity.

“I have so much fun doing sports, and then the competitions come up, and you have to do your best,” Asher said, noting that track practices at his private school are co-ed. “But when you’re being constantly misgendered, it makes it really difficult to do that. It feels like you don’t belong with either groups. It’s detrimental to sports, to everything, that feeling. It hurts every aspect of life.”

Asher provides a window into what could be the future for student athletes throughout North Carolina.

Republican lawmakers in North Carolina – following a trend in 29 other states – have introduced a bill that would ban transgender children from playing in school sports that align with their gender identity.

House Bill 358, titled the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” would instead require all transgender kids in North Carolina public schools to play on athletic teams that match their sex assigned at birth.

“You’re welcome to participate in sports, but she has to participate in something that maintains a level playing field,” said Rep. Mark Brody (R-Monroe), one of the sponsors of the bill. “With my time in high school track – I was a sprinter – I could have been the world-record female back in the 1972 Munich Olympics.”

The concerted GOP effort centers on a narrative in which cis girls’ interests are incompatible with inclusion of transgender girls – stoking fears of the danger of allowing young transgender women to participate on women’s sports teams, and of these young women shattering women’s sports records.

Legislators who propose these bills, which often have identical names and language, usually point to the same examples of perceived issues caused by inclusive sports policies.

Retired transgender Mixed Martial Arts fighter Fallon Fox, in her two-year career, fought one 2014 match in her two-year career in which her opponent suffered an orbital bone fracture — an injury that is not uncommon in the sport.

Two transgender high school girls in Connecticut won a combined 15 championship races between 2017 and 2019, prompting a lawsuit. However, one of the cis female students suing, Chelsea Mitchell, beat the faster of the two transgender sprinters named in the lawsuit, Terry Miller, in their final two races at the Connecticut state championship in February 2020.

These examples notwithstanding, many lawmakers have struggled to name a single example where transgender girls’ participation has caused problems within their own states, including those in North Carolina.

“It’s mainly the national news media who would present the wrestler or the sprinter or the weightlifter that has shattered women’s sports records, and find out that they’re a transgender female,” said Brody. “We hear a lot from constituents [who are concerned]. It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen here, it’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen here.”

Brody said he was mainly concerned transgender girls who had undergone puberty — high school and junior high students — would have an unfair advantage against cis competitors. The proposed bill, however, would ban transgender children of all ages from participating in sports that align with their gender identity.

Transgender children already face barriers to participation in athletic activities, and few appear to be playing in school sports in North Carolina at all – raising questions from advocates and student athletes about why the bill is being presented in the state.

“They’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Asher, the track and field athlete.

‘Fewer than 10’

Brody said he and the bill’s other cosponsors are being “proactive” and attempting to prevent future problems.

“We’re trying to set a standard – in some cases, all you have to do is make the declaration that you are a female, and not have to go through any sort of tests or anything,” he argued. “The ‘bright line’ definition we used in the bill was one that we completely believe is medically proven: If a transgender female, regardless of the sport, has the Y chromosome, well then they have to play under the men’s sport.”

But it’s likely very few transgender and gender-expansive girls play in women’s school sports in North Carolina.  Existing data suggests a very small number of the state’s 1.7 million school-age children are transgender kids, and an even smaller number of them are participating in these activities at all.

In 2019, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association adopted a policy aimed to increase inclusion of transgender athletes in school sports, allowing transgender athletes to play on teams that align with their gender identity and expression. Students who identify as a gender different from the sex listed on their birth certificate must fill out a “Gender Identity Request form, which includes documentation from the student, loved ones, and a health care professional that demonstrates the student’s “consistent gender identification.”

Very few of these requests have been filed. James Alverson, spokesperson for the NCHSAA, declined to provide exact numbers to “protect the identity of any students who have gone through the waiver process.”

“We will only say there are fewer than 10 requests in the nearly two full years this policy has been in place,” he said in an email.

According to population data from the state Office of Budget and Management, there were  about 686,680 high school-aged children overall in North Carolina in 2020.

Data for younger children’s participation in school sports are elusive, as no organization appears to track this number.

Barriers to participation

LGBTQ advocates have alleged for years that it’s often very difficult for transgender children to play in sports activities.

For transgender youth, participating in sports requires a lot of paperwork and the support of several adults who are aware and accepting of the child’s gender identity. For kids who lack the support of their parents or teachers, or aren’t comfortable with their peers knowing they’re transgender, this can feel like an insurmountable hurdle.

If a child is already feeling isolated in their school environment, according to Rebby Kern, director of education policy at Equality NC, they’re going to be less likely to engage in an activity that requires them to spend more time with their peers.

“Joshua,” a 15-year-old transgender boy who lives in the Western part of the state, has played soccer since he was four. The defensive midfielder – “defense is my life,” he noted –  said he already faces challenges in navigating high school sports as a transgender boy.

A current freshman, Joshua came out last year and plans to try out for his public school’s boys team should soccer resume in the coming academic term.

The decision involved weighing his identity against his sense of safety, he said.

“My school tries to hold on to as many good athletes as they can, and some of the time those good athletes [on the boys’ team] aren’t good people,” Joshua, who requested NC Health News use a pseudonym, said. “It’s hard to like, choose between the girls team and the boys team, because the girls team will make me mentally feel really bad, and the boys will make me feel scared.”

“Our transgender and gender nonconforming young people are being violated in many ways in school,” Kern of Equality NC said. “They’re not having their names honored in the classroom, they’re not able to access facilities that feel comfortable for them, their educators are not always trained on inclusive policies in the classroom, they’re not accessing medically accurate, gender-inclusive sex education about their bodies in relationship to others.”

Kern said these and other factors often result in these young people disengaging from school.

“They don’t see themselves reflected and they don’t have supportive staff, and potentially supportive family members,” they added. “So the last thing our young people are then thinking about is, ‘How can I get involved in school activities?’”

LGBTQ organizers said the proposed HB 358 could exacerbate existing barriers and have unintended mental health consequences for kids like Joshua, by eliminating that choice entirely.

“This could potentially out trans students that have been participating in sports and athletics in alignment to gender identity as protected by the NCHSAA policy,” Kern said. “I find the conversation to actually be very dehumanizing – we’re talking about kids! Having a bill like this would then force those students to come out front and exit their teams.”

Studies indicate playing sports as an adolescent can be a protective factor in a child’s mental health, particularly by decreasing a child’s risk of anxiety and depression. Transgender youth are at a heightened risk for suicide when compared to cis youth. That trend is even more pronounced for youth of color, particularly among Black and American Indian kids.

“We should be thinking about what the role of sports is in a young person’s life, the very important lessons that young people learn about teamwork, persevering, and learning to face loss graciously,” said Ames Simmons, policy director at National Center for Transgender Equality. “When we effectively make participation so difficult for a minority of students, the mental health impact of having to be someone that you’re not probably means that a lot of transgender and gender diverse young people who might want to participate in sports won’t.”

Asher believes this is already an issue within the private school network in North Carolina, due to the requirement that transgender kids play on the teams that align with their birth gender, not their gender identity.

“There’s this weird cycle where, because of these rules, a lot of trans people are uncomfortable joining sports,” he said. “But because there are a lot less trans people participating in sports, there isn’t a huge push for the association to change the rules about trans people being in sports – and it’s just, it makes things really difficult for all of us.”

In states that have had gender-inclusive policies for years, such as California and Connecticut, early data suggest participation overall — for both cisgender and transgender students — appears to have increased, rather than declined.

Economic loss?

The “Save Women’s Sports Act” was introduced on the anniversary of one of North Carolina’s most controversial legislation in modern history. House Bill 2, which was signed into law in 2016, prohibited transgender people from using bathrooms or locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity in public agencies and schools.

“The current bill really kind of springs out of the same sort of political environment as HB2,” said David McLennan, professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll, a statewide public opinion poll that primarily focuses on politics and women’s issues. “Even though North Carolina got a lot of notoriety for passing that bill, it was part of a concerted effort across the country in state legislatures controlled by Republicans.”

The law sparked a wave of backlash. Companies such as PayPal withdrew plans to expand into Tar Heel cities, and sports associations and performers canceled events in the state. Several states and almost 30 cities issued ‘travel bans’ forbidding government employees from non-essential travel to North Carolina in protest of the policy, which became colloquially known as the “bathroom bill.”

It’s hard to definitively assess the total economic impact of HB2 on the state — the year it passed, Spectrum News estimated boycotts over the bill cost North Carolina over 1,750 jobs and $77 million. In 2017, an Associated Press analysis estimated the bill would have cost the state $3.7 billion over 12 years had it not been partially repealed by Gov. Roy Cooper that year.

Conservative proponents of HB2 believe these assessments are overblown. “During that year that HB2 was in effect, North Carolina had record economic growth and record tourism,” Brody noted. “It was more media hype than reality.”

Tourism did reach record-high numbers in 2016; however, North Carolina’s gross domestic profit grew more slowly when compared to the previous year.

Brody said he isn’t concerned about boycotts should the proposed HB 358 pass, chalking the remembered impact of the bathroom law up to a feat of “clever marketing.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has said it will “closely monitor” state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation. The organization moved championships – in particular basketball tournament games – out of North Carolina in 2016 in response to HB2.

The NCAA men’s tournament only returned to Greensboro last year.

More research needed

The current debate around balancing inclusion and fairness within sports – which rears its head each time officials seek to regulate participation of transgender women and girls – is stymied by a simple fact: There’s almost no research on performance of transgender athletes. A small amount of evidence, including a European study cited in the proposed North Carolina bill, suggests some muscle mass advantage remains in people who were assigned male at birth even after a year of testosterone suppression.

As Eric Vilain, director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National Hospital, previously told The New York Times, even if further studies bear this out, that doesn’t necessarily mean the advantage is unfair – by definition, all “elite athletes” have some sort of superiority over their peers.

“It’s like saying Usain Bolt’s abilities are unfair because he wins by so much each time,” Vilain, who advised the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee on policies for transgender athletes, said told the Times. Vilain was not available for comment for this piece due to international work travel.

Nationwide, about 75 percent of Americans support laws that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in public life.

“The majority of North Carolinians favor civil rights generally, but there’s still a strong pocket of support for what we might consider to be quote-unquote ‘traditional values’ in North Carolina,” said McLennan, from the Meredith Poll. “Even though national surveys indicate strong preferences for anti-discrimination, that percentage may not apply in North Carolina, even on the same issue, same question.”

Wedge issues, according to McLennan, are more about energizing a select sub-group of supporters than appealing to a wide swath of North Carolinians. For example, the majority of state residents opposed HB2 at the time of its passing, Meredith polling found.

“When HB2 was being debated here in North Carolina, you saw a lot of social conservatives donate money, become very politically active, go online — the kinds of things that you might not see when those issues aren’t around,” he said.

“We’re looking into the 2022 election cycle, and the fight for the Senate seat in North Carolina with Richard Burr retiring,” McLennan added. “This [new bill] is a way to keep the most conservative elements within North Carolina really engaged.”

Transgender kids such as Asher and Joshua feel the “bright line” drawn by the bill fails to account for these individual differences.

“They’re focusing a lot on scholarships, but just because you have male biology doesn’t mean you’re a good athlete, which I think people are leaving out,” said Joshua. “People think, ‘trans girls can just like, get into sports, they’re so good.’ But like a lot of times, transgender kids – and this isn’t about them being transgender or queer by any means – just aren’t good at sports. They’re cut from teams just like anybody else.”

“A lot of people also focus on men pretending to be trans,” he added. “That’s very strange, because it’s almost impossible to pretend to be a minority. It’s hard to be trans, and it’s hard to be trans in sports and it’s also hard to be trans in schools – I think it’s strange to stigmatize children as predators just because they are transgender.”

Looking ahead

Brody, a cosponsor of the bill, acknowledged that it’s complicated.

“The reality is, there are some women who are biological females who are going to beat the transgender,” he said. “If people don’t like the bright line definition that I have, this is the process by which you sort out and try to find that solution.”

The representative said he didn’t speak to any transgender people or LGBTQ groups before proposing the bill, but would be willing to now that the legislation is moving forward.

“I’m not going to get into an argument with somebody about something,” he said. “You want to talk about concrete facts or you want to talk solutions, I’m welcome to do that. I would say if there is a solution, then let’s speak about it.”

HB2 was marketed on the threat that men would use anti-discrimination ordinances to come into bathrooms and harm women. Proponents of the proposed HB 358 have employed a similar strategy — positing that transgender women present an acute danger to cis women, or at least endanger their participation in sports. Both concerns are rooted in fear of “what ifs” rather than any evidence of such events occurring within the state, advocates say.

“In general, when people join sports it’s because they want to have that sense of community and they want to have fun, and better themselves, better their skill sets and their body and their health,” said Asher. “Being on a team, it’s helped me make more friends, it’s given me something that I can relate to other people with. Even outside of my school I’ve met other trans athletes, and being able to bond over the experience has been really wonderful. It’s the reason we join sports, and there’s no sense of just wanting to steal the competition.”

Several other bills related to LGBTQ rights have been proposed in the 2021 legislative session  – one would repeal HB2 entirely, some would provide protection from many types of discrimination, and one would ban transgender youth from using puberty blockers or other forms of trans-affirming medical care.

Hannah Critchfield

Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists...