Apr 20, 2023 - News

NC lawmakers debate trans athletes' rights

Illustration of a ref holding a whistle and a red penalty card with the transgender symbol on it.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The lives of transgender North Carolinians could change in the coming months under numerous bills Republican lawmakers are rapidly advancing through the state legislature.

Driving the news: One proposal, which the House passed Wednesday, would prohibit people assigned male at birth from playing on womens' sports teams from middle school to college.

  • The Senate is set to pass a similar bill Thursday that will apply only to middle and high school sports, and both chambers have the votes to override Gov. Roy Cooper's expected veto.
  • Another proposal could revoke the licenses of doctors who provide gender-affirming treatments to minors.
  • And House Republicans unveiled earlier this week legislation that would ban drag performances in the presence of minors or on public property. A similar bill was temporarily blocked in Tennessee last month.

Why it matters: Trans kids have reported that state legislatures' efforts to restrict their rights have been detrimental to their mental health as suicide rates in the trans community are trending upward.

The big picture: In advancing bills opponents say discriminate against trans people, North Carolina Republicans have joined a chorus of conservative-led statehouses that have considered and passed similar legislation.

What's happening: The sports-related proposal in particular has elicited outrage, press conferences, wall-to-wall media coverage and athletes and other speakers backing the bill from Kentucky to Idaho as it has made its way through the legislature.

Yes, but: For all the attention its drawn and effort sponsors have made to pass the bill, trans kids playing high school sports are few and far between.

  • Just 18 trans high school athletes have sought approval from the state's athletic association to play on teams with the gender they identify with. Of those, 16 were approved, two of which are trans girls, the association tells Axios.
  • 14 athletes approved to play are trans boys who were assigned female at birth. Though, under the legislation, they could play on boys' teams in some circumstances.

The other side: Supporters of the legislation argue athletes should be on an even playing field with their peers, saying the bill would ensure fairness and the safety of female players.

  • "The number of female athletes who have been denied opportunities or traumatized or hurt by policies that claim to promote inclusion is growing at an alarming rate," said former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who has spoke around the country about her experience competing in collegiate swimming with trans woman Lia Thomas, who won the 500-yard freestyle in the NCAA women's championship last year.
  • "It's unacceptable and the integrity of women's sports is lost and that is why I implore you to please pass legislation that preserves women's athletic opportunities at all levels.

Of note: The momentum behind numerous LGBTQ rights-related bills comes seven years after North Carolina passed now-repealed legislation, better known as HB2, that prohibited trans people from using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.

Go deeper: Four big developments in the national trans sports debate

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines.


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