The Florida Senate Health Policy Committee today approved a bill that would scrap existing policy and ban transgender women from participating in competitive high school and college sports absent testosterone testing that might clear them to play.
The party-line 6-4 vote followed more than two hours of debate, impassioned pleas for and against the bill and the occasional rebuke against statements deemed disparaging of transgender students. The committee is the second to approve the bill, with the Rules Committee its next stop.
“Was this bill presented based on research statistics that were done beforehand, or was it presented on prejudice?” Elliott Bertrand asked the Senate panel. Bertrand is a student at Flagler Palm Coast High School and a central reason why–along with federal law–the Flagler district last December amended its non-discrimination policy to include the words “gender identity.”
After hearing senators debate the bill, a debate that revealed the extent to which question after question went unanswered, he said, “there’s no way that this could be based in actual fact, of students who have played and had an unfair advantage, other than a student who lost, and maybe felt they were wronged. How can you not do the research and expect to come here and not have your prejudice, come out and be seen by everyone. I ask you that.” (Bertrand’s father, Randall, also addressed the panel.)
He was one of many high school and college students, some of them transgender some current cisgender female athletes, who spoke in opposition to the bill. As several of them noted, they spoke on the issue with an irony looming over the proposed ban: today is International TRansgender Day of Visibility.
“This bill is transphobic and only serves to further alienate trans youth from their cisgender counterparts,” one current female athlete said. “Trans kids need less barriers from government, not more, especially when the Florida High School Athletic Association and NCAA has its own regulations that take into consideration that gender is not in one’s pants.”
Speakers who addressed the bill were overwhelmingly opposed, but there were supporters, among them a representative of the Christian Family Coalition Florida, calling a yes vote “a vote for fairness and for equal rights for women despite all the misinformation you’ve heard here today. Women are the ones that need protection.” He said “these attacks against women’s sports are appalling. And not only that, it is I think offensive, that those who are opposing this bill are doing it under the guise of discrimination. These lofty platitudes and rhetoric, are extremely disrespectful.”
A representative of a Florida organization called Freedom Speaks Coalition echoed the statement, though at one point making an analogy between transgender people and a calico cat she’d taken to the vet, only to discover it was a male. A speaker for the Florida Citizens Alliance largely supported the bill but preferred eligibility for women’s sports to be based on a DNA test, not on testosterone levels.
The Senate bill bans athletic teams designated for females to be open to males, and requires that transgender students transitioning from male to female who want to compete as females demonstrate a testosterone level below a certain limit for at least 12 months before competition and throughout the period of desired eligibility, thus requiring repeated testing. In that regard, the Senate bill is less restrictive than a companion House version, which would outright ban transgender athletes from participating in female sports.
The bill attempts to mirror an existing Olympic standard to make allowances for transgender athletes based on testosterone levels, though the Olympic standard has itself been mired in controversy, not least because it also applies to women who have not transitioned but naturally happen to have higher testosterone levels.
The bill also opens the way to lawsuits from students or schools that feel “harmed” by any violation of the bille’s requirements, though the bill would likelier be a violation of a recent Supreme Court decision that judged any discrimination on the basis of sex illegal. The ruling applied to gender identity.
The bill, termed “Promoting Equality of Athletic Opportunity,” is a misnomer: existing standards of equality as applied by college and high school associations would be eliminated. The name is the work of the American Principles Project and Concerned Women for America, one of the conservative organizations behind successful attempts in South Dakota, Mississippi and Arkansas to rollback transgender rights in sports, with nearly identical bills. So the claim by Sen. Illena Garcia, the Miami Republican, that “ I don’t think,
you know, political partisan should be a part of this” was either disingenuous or misinformed.
“Equal Opportunity has nothing, nothing to gain by harming trans girls,” an Orlando resident who addressed the panel said. “Please, oppose this, and do not say it’s about equal opportunity for girls because you haven’t done your work.”
Equality Florida, the LGBTQ advocacy organization, calls the bill “sports-ban legislation.”
There hasn’t been a sudden surge of transgender athletes in competitive sports in Florida high schools or colleges: the Florida High School Athletics Association policy addressing (and allowing) transgender participation within certain parameters has applied to just 11 athletes since 2013, across all of Florida. A legislative analysis gives an estimate of just 150,000 transgender students ages 13 to 17 across the United States, or fewer than 10,000 in Florida.
But in Florida as in the other legislatures where bills recasting transgender rules have been approved, conservative groups poll-tested the transgender issue, found it a potent if risky political weapon, and issued standard talking points to bill sponsors to respond to challenges.
Risky, because after the North Carolina legislature in 2016 approved a bill discriminating against transgender people using the bathrooms of their choice, the NCAA pulled its basketball championship from Charlotte and issued new rules requiring championship hosts to “provide a statement certifying its ability to deliver and maintain an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination and respects the dignity of all persons.”
Bill sponsors acknowledge that there isn’t a rampant problem–or any documented problem, as Sen. Kelli Stargell, the Lakeland Republican sponsoring the senate version of the bill in Florida, did today. But they describe their efforts as attempts to anticipate potential issues. “I’m trying to do this on the front of the situation,” she said, “prior to there being a problem.”
“We wanted to make sure they didn’t have an unfair competitive advantage,” Stargell said. “And the best way we could approach that was to look at what had been done in other areas. And so we’ve mirrored this after how they’ve done that in the Olympics in order to give those students who have transitioned the opportunity to play. Not trying to bar all transgender, just making sure that there’s not a competitive advantage for transgender females.”
A senator asked her how many transgender athletes there are in Florida today. Stargell said she did not know. A senator asked her whether she had spoken to any transgender athletes. Stragell said she had not. A senator asked her if she had spoken with colleges or universities about the issue in their context. Stargell said she had not.
“So, in hearing that we don’t know how many female athletes have actually lost any scholarship opportunities to transgender females in Florida,” the senator asked her.
“Have any cisgender athletes come to you and said that they think that this policy needs to be changed?” a senator asked her. Stargell said she had. But asked if any of those cisgender athletes had ever lodged a formal complaint, Stargell said no.
“I do not have that number,” Stargell said. Her information was anecdotal. “I have spoken to a number of individuals who have lost matches, and who have stated that there have been concerns,” she said. “Right here in Tallahassee I received a letter from a parent where the local girls team in volleyball came in second, because the other team had transgender athletes, which gave them, they believed, a competitive advantage.”
A senator asked Stargell what it would cost students to carry out testosterone tests, likely at their own expense since insurance carriers would not cover the cost. Stargell said she did not know. She acknowledged that measuring testosterone has its flaws. “There’s not a definite answer, which is what I’ve said before on the best way to do this,” Stargell said. “I was trying to give an opportunity to that transgender student had the opportunity to play, unlike the position that has been so commonly done, which is just based on biological” sex.
A senator asked Stargell whether she knew of any complaints regarding the existing policy by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
“I have not seen any complaints to that policy, no,” Stargell said. “We’re not here actually to debate that,” she later snapped, when pressed by a different senator, describing the FHSAA policy as “intrusive.”
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward Democrat, pointed out that “35 percent of trans youth attempted suicide in the past year, which is five times the suicide rate for cisgender, 31 percent of trans youth have experienced some sexual violence in the past year, which is three times the rate for cisgender youth, and 27 percent just felt unsafe even going to school in the last 30 days.” He then asked: “What what is this bill do to protect transgender youth?”
Stargell’s answer blamed existing policy, even though she had acknowledged that there had been no complaints regarding existing policy: “I could see a situation where a child went through possibly the FHSAA process, and was denied,” she said, “and they were deemed not to have been transgender enough to play. That would be very troubling on a child and I think that can provoke a child to feel that way.”
When pressed further by a senator, Stargell menaced that stricter outcome: “This was my attempt at trying to give them an opportunity to play,” she said. “But if this is becoming too cumbersome, there’s always the opportunity that we can look further at the House bill, which just bases it strictly on your biological sex.”
Randall Bertrand, Elliott’s father, is opposed to either bill but he cautioned senators from conceding to the House bill especially, which explicitly calls for physical examinations of students’ sexual organs. “If you decide to go this direction, you’re basically signing up for genital inspections of middle and high school students, that’s what you’re signing up for,” Bertrand said, before speaking his exasperation over the numerous questions to which senators did not have answers: “You people are the government and you don’t have the answers to these questions. I found out two days, two days it took me. I have nothing. I’m just average-Joe citizen, so why can’t you have the answers to these questions? oppose this bill.”
The debate was not without its occasional slur, as when Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican–who devoted part of his closing remarks to an attack on “cancel culture” to reject the argument that the state could suffer economically if the measure passed–referred to “people who will pose in that manner in order to get in a place where they can be competitively advantage which could cost somebody their life.”
While the public comment segment had included one proponent of the bill making an analogy between transgender people and calico cats, Baxley had an analogy of his own: “I can stand out here in the garage all day and convinced that I’m an automobile. But it doesn’t make me an automobile.” He said “somebody has got to draw the line here when you are pouting young women in a very dangerous physical position.”
Baxley’s statement drew a sharp rebuke from Shervin Jones, the Miami Gardens Democrat. “For us to come in here and to use certain terminology is offensive to them,” he said of Baxley’s references about transgender individuals. “I don’t care where you stand on the issue but Mr. Chair, we have to have a sense of decorum when it comes to respecting these individuals,” he said.
Sen. Janet Cruz, the Tampa Democrat, said the Senate was legislating a problem it did not have. “The title is promoting equality of athletic opportunity, but I’m afraid that if we pass this bill out of committee today, we will be doing the exact opposite,” she said. “We will be creating yet another vulnerable environment for our transgender students. And these young individuals are already going through arguably the hardest time in their lives. They’re trying to figure out who the hell they are. They’re simultaneously withstanding the scrutiny and the hatred of a community around them. And instead of discriminating against them, we should be ensuring that our communities are cultivating safe and accepting environments for the students.”
Despite the dramatic tenor of the hearing, there was never any doubt about the vote from the moment the bill had been placed on the committee’s agenda.
The full hearing video is available here.