Transgender kids would be banned from playing on school sports teams for the gender with which they identify under a GOP-backed bill that advanced Thursday in Montana one of more than a dozen states where lawmakers are proposing restrictions on athletics or gender-confirming health care for trans minors this year.
The proposals run counter to an executive order signed by Democratic President Joe Biden during his first day in office prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in school sports and elsewhere. The order immediately sparked a backlash from conservative groups, a split that reflects the deep divisions in the U.S. around transgender youth.
Proponents of the Montana bill say allowing transgender athletes to compete can create an unfair playing field in middle and high schools, especially in girls' sports. Opponents say it would hurt transgender kids and could drive business away from the state and make it harder for Montana companies to attract new employees.
“Transgender students, like all students, deserve the chance to learn teamwork and to build self-esteem and a sense of belonging with their peers through sports,” said Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
The measure is similar to a 2020 Idaho law that's been blocked by a federal judge as a lawsuit plays out. The American Civil Liberties Union has also pledged to sue if the proposal passes in Montana, a state newly controlled by Republicans in the governor's office and the state Legislature.
The issue is being litigated in Connecticut, where several girls are challenging a policy that allows transgender athletes to compete in line with their identity. The plaintiffs argue transgender female runners have an unfair physical advantage.
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel at the conservative nonprofit organization Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the plaintiffs in the Connecticut suit, said she is seeing a growing trend where lawmakers across the country are recognizing that it’s “a real problem” when state athletic associations or school districts allow transgender women to compete in women’s sports.
This year, state lawmakers also want to restrict transgender students’ sports participation in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Dakota, and New Hampshire.
Several more states are weighing separate proposed bans on certain medical treatment for transgender minors, including Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
In Montana, a House committee will vote this week on a proposal to prohibit doctors from providing transgender youth certain gender-related medical treatment.
The Montana bill targeting transgender youth sports participation now heads to the House floor, after passing a panel of lawmakers Thursday with an 11-8 vote. It was largely along party lines, though the committee's youngest Republican, recent high school graduate Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, also opposed the measure.
Democrats pointed to Biden's order and said passing the law could put federal funding for education in Montana at risk.
The proposed ban is personal for people like Juniper Eastwood, a transgender woman and former member of the University of Montana’s track and field and cross-country running teams.
She said the legislation “would make it impossible for other young Montanans like me to participate in sports as who they are.”
“Participation in sports is about more than winning and losing,” she said. “It’s about community and personal development.”
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.