Wisconsin’s anti-transgender sports bills strike at a fragile moment in LGBTQ politics

The legislation builds on specious narratives about transgender people invading women’s spaces.

The legislation builds on specious narratives about transgender people invading women’s spaces.

This story was produced in partnership with Our Lives Magazine and Emily Mills’ newsletter, Grist From The Mills.

Photo: Pro-trans activists and politicians rally in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol to counter the message of GOP legislators on the day of a press conference introducing anti-trans bills. Photo by Patrick Farabaugh for Our Lives Magazine.

Wisconsin legislators last week introduced two bills at the state Capitol that would force schools to ban transgender and non-binary students from participating in sports according to their gender identity.

The bills, jointly and misleadingly called the “Protecting Women in Sports Act,” would impact all schools that receive federal aid, including public K-12 schools, independent charters, private choice institutions, the University of Wisconsin System and technical colleges. They would prohibit transgender students from participating in organized sports, unless a team or program is specifically designated as “co-ed.” 

Introduced by lead author Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc), the bills closely align with almost identical legislation currently being pushed in dozens of state houses across the country. According to the ACLU, so far this year some 28 states have introduced legislation that would prohibit transgender students from participating in sports. There are dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills now pending across the country, including many that go so far as to seek to make it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth.

The legislative push comes in tandem with attempts to spread a false narrative that transgender people are dangerous and seeking to invade women’s spaces, including everything from public restrooms to sports.

As in many cases, proponents of the bills are attempting to cast themselves as advocates for women and girls, and their opponents as somehow anti-woman, which Rep. Dittrich explicitly did during a March 2 press conference.

“I think if the governor really cares about women, he absolutely should advance this legislation and there should be no reason why it doesn’t go anywhere, unless he’s a sexist,” she said.

Randi Hagen, a Madison resident, transgender woman, and hockey athlete, was clear in her rebuttal: “I am a woman, and this bill does not protect me. I am a woman, and this bill will harm me.”

At a small, pro-trans rally held outside the Capitol to counter the messages at the press conference, the message was unequivocal. Brian Juchems, Co-Executive Director of GSAFE, a statewide group that advocates for LGBTQ students, put it plainly: “Trans girls are girls. Trans boys are boys. Trans athletes benefit from participation in sports just in the same ways that cisgender students do and they deserve to have that access and experience.”

“I was cautiously optimistic that we wouldn’t get bills like this in Wisconsin, knowing that we have a governor who would not stand for it,” said Fair Wisconsin Executive Direcor Megin McDonell, who is also the parent of a transgender teenager. “Obviously, there are people in the Legislature who decided that this is their priority anyway, in spite of the pandemic and the fact that the bill will ultimately be defeated.”

McDonell points out that, just by introducing legislation like this, Republicans will further marginalize and harm transgender and non-binary people in the state.

“The impact on the trans community is terrible. It sends a terrible message that makes people feel unvalued, unloved, and unwelcome,” she said.

Hagen echoed that sentiment in an interview later that day: “Bills like this make me think politicians like Rep. Dittrich are actively trying to harm people like me. [For] a younger trans woman trying to find a community, or trying to use sports as a healthy outlet, [these bills] are going to demonstrably harm her.”

Randi Hagen. Photo by Heather Pollack.

Randi Hagen. Photo by Heather Pollack.

Cathy Kimport is a transgender roller derby athlete who plays under the name Tipsy Velvet. She further made the point that misleading public statements and the “separate but equal” legislation harms transgender people—those out and those not yet able to be open about who they are. It also poisons the well of public opinion, she said, because while transgender people are suddenly more visible than ever, knowledge about and exposure to actual transgender people is, by and large, lacking.

“What’s so insidious about these bills is their ability to hook into people with honest questions and drag them down a path towards some dangerous conclusions,” Kimport said in an email interview. “In our present situation, in 2021 America, familiarity with trans people and trans issues just hasn’t quite permeated through our mainstream cultural consciousness yet. And one consequence of this is that if you’re a parent, you don’t need to have any hate in your heart for a question like ‘is it safe for my daughter to compete against a transgender student?’ to pop into your mind. For years, online hate groups have been taking advantage of this, using the honest questions of those unfamiliar with trans issues as an open window to throw hateful rhetoric into.”

GSAFE and Fair Wisconsin worked together to organize the last-minute rally once news broke the day before about the bills. McDonell and Juchems say they’ll be doing outreach in the coming days to build a coalition of other LGBTQ and like-minded organizations and individuals to help stand up against the legislation and speak out in support of transgender youth.

Democrats in the Legislature released a statement in opposition immediately following the press conference. In a joint statement from Reps. Marisabel Cabrera, Greta Neubauer, Mark Spreitzer, Lee Snodgrass, and Sen. Tim Carpenter, they said, “Today’s Republican attacks on transgender youth and children in Wisconsin continue a deeply disturbing trend of legislators seeking to limit the rights and opportunities of LGBTQ+ youth in their schools. All young people, including transgender or intersex athletes, should have the right and the opportunity to participate in organized, school-sponsored athletics consistent with their gender identity.”

“Instead of attacking kids who just want to play, our Republican colleagues should get to work on COVID-19 relief for struggling Wisconsinites,” the statement continued.

Part of a larger effort

Nationally, as the transgender-inclusive Equality Act makes its way through Congress, anti-transgender activists are increasing their campaign to either amend the act to remove transgender protections, or defeat it entirely. Many of the bills and the campaigns behind them are being pushed and/or funded by the usual, anti-LGBTQ right-wing groups like ALEC, Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Heritage Foundation

In a case of strange bedfellows, groups that claim to be in favor of women’s rights often find themselves in alignment (and sometimes direct partnership) with those right-wing organizations when it comes to attacking transgender rights. An ad airing on WKOW features two well-known anti-trans activists from Madison and Milwaukee and pushes the narrative that the Equality Act needs to be amended to remove its inclusion of trans and non-binary people from protections. The group behind the ad, Women’s Liberation Radio News, has also funded a series of billboards across the country (including one in Milwaukee) that specifically targets trans participation in sports.

Billboards in cities like Milwaukee share a misleading and  anti-trans message.

Billboards in cities like Milwaukee share a misleading and  anti-trans message.

“This unprecedented surge of anti-transgender legislation is not being demanded by constituents,” said Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel Cathryn Oakley in a statement. “Legislators in several states have openly admitted that there is no problem happening in their states that needs addressing. We know this because trans-inclusive policies have been in place for the NCAA and the Olympics for years. Lawmakers’ suggestion that student athletes are trying to game the system for competitive advantage is nonsensical and impractical. It simply does not happen. Their goal is to use these states to advance their hateful agenda, and this legislative push is being made without much care for the economic, legal, and reputational consequences these states might face in the wake of their passage.”

The policies Oakley references are instructive. The NCAA has allowed transgender people to participate since 2011, with the stipulation that trans women undergo one year of hormone replacement therapy before they can join. There are no requirements of trans men. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s current rules differ slightly, in that they require one year of HRT for both trans men and women, as well as written certification from both a parent or guardian and a medical professional. 

The International Olympic Committee has similarly allowed transgender people to compete since 2004, though with similar restrictions around hormone levels. Despite that, no transgender person has competed at the Olympics. Within the NCAA, no transgender athletes have yet risen to the top levels. Both examples, with over 15 years worth of case study, flatly disprove the current fear mongering around trans athletes somehow taking away opportunities and medals from cisgender competitors. 

That didn’t stop Rep. Dittrich, in a recent Twitter thread, from attempting to use two instances of transgender people doing well at private sporting events as justification for her bills. The Associated Press reached out to dozens of lawmakers and conservative organizations supporting similar bills across the country to ask if they had specific examples of why the legislation was needed, and “found only a few times it’s been an issue among the hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who play high school sports.”

A few prominent cases of transgender youth fighting for their right to compete have come up in recent years, though, part of a larger wave toward greater visibility for transgender people. But the fact remains that transgender students, and LGBTQ youth generally, have far lower participation rates in organized sports generally, let alone the time and training to become dominant in their sport.

According to a 2018 report from the Human Rights Campaign, while 68 percent of straight-identified youth participate in school sports, just 24 percent of LGBTQ-identified students do. That same report showed that 82 percent of transgender youth athletes were not out to their coaches. Research from GLSEN showed that 11.3 percent of students reported being steered away from sports by teachers and staff specifically because of their LGBTQ identity.

Despite recent increased visibility, the existence of trans people is not new. Evidence across centuries and cultures shows people whose lived experience fits within the trans spectrum. Having common language for and understanding of that experience, as well as greater public awareness, is what’s new.

“We’ve seen progress…and greater awareness, greater exposure to trans people generally and this is the backlash” Juchems observed. “Just like the pushback around racial justice and immigrants’ rights. It’s this predictable pushback against any progress that actually makes improvements in people’s lives.” 

In their own words

In talking with several transgender people who participate in sports, similar themes emerged: the mental and physical health benefits that playing sports provide, how important it was to find a feeling of community and belonging in team sports, and how, more often than not, transgender athletes have to work just as hard—if not more so—to compete at higher levels.

Below are their interviews, reprinted in full (with minor editing for clarity):

Cathy Kimport, aka Tipsy Velvet, skater and coach with Madison Roller Derby

Tipsy Velvet. Photo by Tyler Shaw Photography.

Tipsy Velvet. Photo by Tyler Shaw Photography.

Tone Madison: What’s your reaction to these bills (and others like them) being introduced in Wisconsin?

Tipsy Velvet: What’s so insidious about these bills is their ability to hook into people with honest questions and drag them down a path towards some dangerous conclusions.

In our present situation, in 2021 America, familiarity with trans people and trans issues just hasn’t quite permeated through our mainstream cultural consciousness yet. And one consequence of this is that if you’re a parent, you don’t need to have any hate in your heart for a question like “is it safe for my daughter to compete against a transgender student?” to pop into your mind. And for years, online hate groups have been taking advantage of this, using the honest questions of those unfamiliar with trans issues as an open window to throw hateful rhetoric into.

And make no mistake, the decision to go after sports is a calculated move. It’s not about young women in sports—in fact, a significant contingent of the people nodding their support these anti-trans bills have a history of decidedly not caring about the opportunities women and girls have to play sports. No. By formalizing this in a bill, they’re using it as a vehicle to get more people asking these questions, so they can rush in and be the first to write hateful comments onto the blank slates many people have on the matter of trans people in sport. It’s about pouring gasoline over their own trash fire and wafting the fumes over the entire country.

Tone Madison: Why is access to sports important to you, particularly in a space that aligns with your gender identity, etc.?

Tipsy Velvet: It has been an all-around affirming experience. My journey with sports (and with exercise and fitness in general) is one that I can not separate from my transition journey. Prior to transitioning, I had a severe disinclination to participate in sports—the idea of being a male-presenting person who did “jock stuff” like sports or weightlifting just felt like a betrayal to my core self. But then, after transition, it was something that I saw in an entirely new light.

Transition—contrary to some of the unflattering caricatures you might see in mainstream media or, worse, on transphobic twitter feeds—is not one of an automatic affinity for all things dainty and befitting a 1950’s housewife. The reality of transition is that it’s a multi-faceted process of establishing a rapport with your true gender. And in my case, one facet of that was being the kind of woman eager to jump into the fray of a fast-paced full-contact sport. Things that were once anathema were now empowering, simply by approaching them from a new direction.  Having roller derby leagues that accepted me, that welcomed me, that encouraged me to thrive and reach for the next level, that played a huge role in my journey to being comfortable with who I am.

Of course, it’s not just what gender-affirming spaces in sports can do for trans people, it’s also about what trans people bring to the sports that welcome us. You bring people into your team or your organization that have a wider range of experiences, you’re strengthening the scope of the whole organization. That’s what being part of a team is.

Tone Madison: What’s your response when folks argue that trans people have an alleged “competitive advantage” in sports? 

Tipsy Velvet: I mean… it’s an argument made in bad faith, and there’s so much wrong with it it’s hard to know where to begin unpacking. Statistically speaking, science should have laid that to rest years ago. But anecdotes seem to have more power in our culture than hard science, so let me put forth my own career arc as evidence.

My first time trying out for a team, I didn’t even make the cut. The first couple years I was on a team, I was struggling to keep up. I had to put in countless hours on and off the track over four years before I was even a contender for our internationally-ranked team, and even then I spent the first couple years on the fringes of that roster… it wasn’t until seven years into my skating career that I really would have counted as a “notable” skater. Is that a respectable height?  Something I can be proud of? Sure. But many of my cis teammates reached higher heights, in less time, and stayed there longer.

I happen to fit the stereotypical archetype that transphobic detractors inaccurately paint as the default for all trans people: I’m tall, I’m heavy, and I have a booming voice. But, of course…not all trans women are tall, or heavy, or have booming voices, nor are those things the exclusive province of transwomen. Was I able to turn these things into advantages on the track? Yeah, sure. With work. With training. That’s what competitive sports are all about. We’re not all robots or clones, built to the same set of specifications. We don’t need to be for sports to be a fair competition.

It’s easy for detractors to point out the peaks, but peaks alone are not a mountain range.  Someone could cut together a reel of all my biggest hits, leaving out the myriad times I was humbled, and spin it into a false narrative that I was some kind of intractable monster on the track. It’s easy to point out the trans people who have championship titles to their name, and leave out the hundreds of trans people scattered throughout the middle and bottom of the rankings.

Emma Cameron, runner, member of Madison Trail Runners and November Project-Madison

Emma Cameron.

Emma Cameron.

Tone Madison: What’s your reaction to these bills (and others like them) being introduced in Wisconsin?

Emma Cameron: The introduction of two anti-trans bills to the Wisconsin state legislature has given me a dreadful, existentially overwhelming feeling of despair for my community, especially trans youth.

As a proud transgender athlete, running and participation in outdoor activity and sport are, for me, crucial aspects of my very existence. When you propose legislation that suggests that schools and sporting bodies should ban people like me from participating, you send a dark message. Your message sent to children and teens in schools, trans athletes of all ages, and the transgender community more broadly, is that we would be better off not existing. Based on the misinformed idea that we are eroding your cisgender-given rights, you attack our very existence.

Trans people are people. Trans kids are kids. Have you ever even met a trans youth? You can listen to @chasestrangio interview Kai on Friday at noon Central. Have you ever met a trans adult athlete? You probably have, and maybe you’ve never known. I’m one. Transgender and intersex people have existed for centuries, and we have participated and competed in sport as long as races and competitions have existed. And yet, trans women are not dominating in sports. Young girls who are trans are not overwhelming their cisgender counterparts.

Moreover, what is the purpose of sport? Why do we do it? I would argue that mainly, its purpose serves to spark joy for our existence, relish in the opportunity for friendly competition, pursue adventure, and explore our bodies’ boundaries and limitations. Where did this notion come from of trans athletes competing with some ulterior, disingenuous motive? This question goes doubly so for children!

We just want to play. Let us play.

Tone Madison: What has been your relationship with organized sports? 

Emma Cameron: Growing up, I had a lot of difficulties fitting in with any organized sports team. As a trans kid who didn’t know anything about what it meant to be transgender, I felt a deep sense of discomfort with being around boys, men, and everything that entailed in terms of the attempts at male socialization. I have a memory of my dad trying to instill “traditional” beliefs about sports into me, which would have had me playing sports like football, baseball, etc. I wasn’t about any of that and ended up playing mostly on soccer teams out of the sense that I had to play on some team. 

As time went on, I drifted away from organized sports and found myself preferring solo activity or being outdoors with just one or two close friends. I spent a lot of time running around in the woods, honing my future love for trail and ultrarunning, and biking around the neighborhood and city with my best friend. It wasn’t until I moved to Madison in 2015 that I began to find any sort of organized sports community that I felt truly included within, and that community was November Project – Madison. Honestly, I think it was the feeling of radical inclusion and acceptance within that community that prompted my comfort with being able to come out, both to myself and then eventually my friends, family, and the wider community. Feeling accepted in an organized sports community was what prompted my ability to feel accepted within myself, my body, and my gender. 

That specific feeling is why the introduction of these bills strike me with such a foreboding sense of dread and sadness. Participation in sports and access to activity outdoors is a crucial aspect to my very existence, and this feels like an existential threat to that.

Tone Madison: Why is access to sports important to you, particularly in a space that aligns with your gender identity, etc.? 

Emma Cameron: I think access to sport is important because it’s a space where we can find joy for ourselves, meaning in adventure, friendly competition, in pushing our bodies and their limitations, exploration, and more. As I described in my last answer, for me at least, it just felt fundamentally wrong to be on a team where my gender was assumed incorrectly and not affirmed. 

While I think there are plenty of opportunities for “co-ed” sports where gender is less of a concern (or even community groups like November Project where there is no limitation set on gender), I do think that something about playing sports and competing in sports *as* my correct gender is a crucial affirmation that cisgender people are able to access without hesitation. It’s something that I truly believe trans people should be provided as a matter of true respect and inclusion. We often talk about going beyond the “easy” stuff for true trans liberation, like recognizing pronouns, into the territory of things like access to affirming healthcare, housing, and other systemic issues. I think granting access to the correct spaces for trans people in sports is a similar notion.  

If cis people are to truly, fully accept who we are, they have to go inside their heads and go beyond simply “flicking the switch” from he/him to she/her, she/her to they/them, etc. They must fundamentally recognize that the trans person in question is the gender that they say they are. If that’s the case, then let us play! Let us play sports in the ways that we want to, and in the ways that align with our minds, our bodies, our genders, and our very existence.

Tone Madison: What’s your response when folks argue that trans people have an alleged “competitive advantage in sports?

Emma Cameron: This one is tough for me, as someone who has always been somewhat towards “the front of the pack” when it comes to running. Pre-transition, I outright won races overall or placed in the top several people. Throughout my medical transition, I experienced how, over the years, my body wasn’t able to do the same things it used to. I was slower, by a significant margin. This happened fairly rapidly, and I remember being able to compare my pre-HRT times at the Eau Claire Marathon in 2017 to the Boston Marathon in 2018 and see how they matched the “appropriate” age-graded, gendered times. In other words, my time that I used to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2017 was 17 minutes faster than the “male” qualifying time for my age bracket. After approaching about a year on HRT, I raced at Boston in 2018 and my time was exactly 17 minutes faster than the female qualifying time for my age bracket.  

All of this goes to say that I do care about whether it’s “fair” for me to be competing with cisgender women. I think that it fundamentally is. All of my times are 10-15%+ slower than they used to be 5+ years ago. But ultimately, that’s not what it’s all about!

What it’s really about, is the joy of sport. The joy of adventure, of being outdoors with like-minded people, taking our bodies to new places, to new goals, to new frontiers. When all is said and done, I can scrutinize myself as much as I want in terms of whether it’s “fair” for me to compete, but on the whole, I don’t think this is the question we should be trying to answer for ourselves. The question we should instead be asking is why it feels so important for us to place limitations on fellow humans in their access to participating in the sports that give them joy, meaning, and structure to their lives. 

Tone Madison: What do you hope to see happen around this issue in the future? Anything else you’d like to add?

Emma Cameron: I’d like to see a future where bodies can be bodies, people can be people, and sports can be joyful. That’s all I really want! Maybe there’s some utopian future in which we classify participants in sports in ways other than by gender, or maybe there are times we can do away with gender classification altogether.  

But for the time being, I know that gender is important to a lot of people, and it is to me in many ways as well. I hope that cis people can come to truly accept and include trans people in their spheres of understanding. Understanding that fully and completely, trans people are the genders that we say we are. We’re not taking away anyone’s rights by existing, by seeking out adventure and competition, by playing

Tasha Lawksley, roller derby athlete

Tone Madison: What impact does the introduction of these bills have on you personally?  

Tasha Lawksley: I personally find the bills very targeting, specifically of trans women. They’re discriminatory and lacking any knowledge of what actually happens to someone on puberty blockers or other hormone replacement therapy. It shows that we are not wanted, and that they want to regulate us out of participation in any physical sports or opportunities related to sports.

Tone Madison: What do sports mean to you? Why is it important for you to have participated in/have access to participate in sports generally, and specifically those that align with your gender identity?

Tasha Lawksley: Sports haven’t been the most positive space for me. I grew up presenting as male, playing in small town sports, and I didn’t like most of them at all. Finding a sport  like roller derby, that was inclusive, after starting transition felt wonderful. I was generally welcomed in a space where I also felt encouraged to grow. I’m enjoying sports again as who I really am and knowing that I’m not going to be bothered because of how I grew up.

Nika Nichol, roller derby official

Nika Nichol: Trans oppressing laws are a big deal for me, because I have exclusivly dated (at least formally) genderqueer AFAB people. I’ve also co-parented three children who were being raised to embrace any gender identity they desire. 

As part of the Rockford [Illinois] PFLAG community, I was accepted by my trans male brother, Liam, before I ever accepted myself. His mother Phyllis adopted me as her daughter, after his passing his senior year in high school. His struggle with transphobic public policy and healthcare providers ultimately cost him his life.

Similarly, I too faced this struggle. I knew I was trans from the moment I first heard the description. I knew I had a question since my earliest memories. I just hadn’t been sure what that question was until then. I was 13 years old, and while already socially ostracized as a person from a working poor family, I only became more so as I found myself as a trans woman. 

My involvement with athleticism began with being physically assaulted by coaches, because that’s how boys were being raised back then. “He’s weak, so let’s hit him.” Never understanding that gendering social structure builds toxic masculinity and resentment for authority. Never understanding that giving girls the opposite treatment actually nurtures academic and athletic limitations. I ran from both soccer and baseball because I was being hit by old men in front of my friends.

I came to roller derby as an adult, after learning to be afraid of male violence for so long, and feeling like a total outcast. Unwanted and unloved because I wasn’t “woman enough.” Because my gender was being limited to the sum of my parts. For what value did I have, if not the sexual objectification of straight men? When I came to derby, it was from a place of growing my career with exclusively masculine opportunities, while receiving exclusively feminine pay and title limitations. I wasn’t allowed to learn soft skills. The ultimate result for me was spending nearly a year disabled due to a back injury caused by shoddy labor practices in a non-union manufacturing plant. I came to roller derby broken and begging to be a NSO (non-skating official). 

My mentors taught me that femininity wasn’t weakness, emotions were healthy, and family built through comradeship was stronger than the birth family I’d had to leave behind all those years ago. Athletics, for me, meant empowerment. 

I went back to school for my GED and got it in time for my 30th birthday, thanks to the love and support from my league and my extended derby fam.

Derby has been the social glue to hold my friends together, and even been the primary source of strength for me as I fought an eating disorder.

It’s given me a healthy outlet for aggression as well as a means to support young athletes who are trying their very best to succeed. It’s given me the ability to watch a young girl fall, but learn to pick herself up and try again and to be there to support her along her journey as a mentor and role model. It’s a huge part of me, and a part of me I love, because it gives me a voice to communicate empowerment with others who are struggling.

More than anything, derby has meant the difference between hating everything about myself and finding one tiny piece of self esteem to keep me going. It’s the hinge that opens doors for me to exist in a world where grown adults want to use violence against me for simply using a restroom, or correcting my own pronouns.

I’d like to see people start accepting that, while trans and cis women do have separate backgrounds and diverse bodies–we are both equally valid as women. The same goes for trans masculine folx being equally male as cis masculine folx.

I’d like to see people coming together for fun and fitness with less prejudicial judgment, understanding that transphobia itself is based on sexism.

I’d like people to understand that trans people are not rare. It’s LGBTQ-inclusive education and socioeconomic opportunities that are rare for us, and without those opportunities we don’t have a voice. We’re literally dying out here, just trying to exist.

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