Atlanta Democratic Sen. Sally Harrell fought back emotion in the Senate chamber Thursday as she urged her colleagues to vote down a bill that would ban transgender girls from playing on girls’ school sports teams.
“I’m the mother of a trans child,” she said. “And it’s hard to stand up here and say that, because it hurts, it really, really hurts. And my kid contacted me last night and said, is that bill going to come up in the Senate today? And I said, yes, it is, and I’m dreading it.”
“I just want this to stop,” she added. “Because this feels premature. And this feels judgmental.”
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Harrell said she had not planned to say anything but thought the issue needed to be humanized, leading her to publicly share her personal story for the first time.
“I rose to put a face on this issue so my colleagues would understand that the kids that they are talking about are real kids, just like mine,” she said. “It’s important to use our stories to impact public policy. So, I rose today not only on behalf of myself and my own kid, but for all kids so that these issues can be better thought out.”
But Harrell’s pleas did not convince enough senators to oppose the bill. The chamber passed it 34-22, along party lines, setting it up for consideration in the House. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appeared to signal he was open to signing such a bill, saying earlier this year he wants to “ensure fairness in school sports.”
If it becomes law, students at public schools and private schools that compete against public schools will only be permitted to play on the team that matches the sex on their birth certificate.
Supporters said it is a simple measure to ensure girls have the right to fairly compete.
“During the time that this bill has been formulated, I have heard from constituents, in which one lady said my daughter quits, because she’s not going to play against someone that is not like her, in the sense that she is female, because this person is larger, bigger, faster,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone. “She said my daughter is just going to quit.”
“The spirit of the bill is about fairness,” he added. “It is simply not fair to force girls, biological girls, to compete with biological boys, and it’s currently not fair to expect young women to endure the immense social pressure against them if they speak up for themselves.”
Opponents called it a mean-spirited ploy to drum up election-year support at the expense of marginalized children.
“Here we go again, another election-year bill about another fabricated problem,” said Atlanta Democratic Sen. Elena Parent. “And what’s worse is this time, it’s just gratuitously mean and vindictive. This bill causes very real damage to vulnerable children in its quest to ignite and harness fear over change.”
Johns Creek Sen. Michelle Au, who is a physician, said the bill oversimplifies the complicated science of sex and gender.
“Even biological sex itself is not always in a binary state,” she said. “And I know this because I used to work in pediatrics, and we would often have in the newborn nursery patients who it was not clear from a visual assessment what their biological sex was, because there are patients who are intersex, there are patients who have ambiguous genitalia, and these patients require further workup. We need to do genetic karyotyping, and these are types of things that are really beyond the scope of this bill.”
Research further shows that transgender youth have significantly higher rates of suicide and thoughts of suicide, and that support and acceptance can reduce that gap, Au said.
“This bill addresses a theoretical harm,” she said. “I think what we should be targeting and doing in this body is addressing demonstrated harms. And the demonstrated harms that we’ve seen and have been borne out in clinical research and in the demographics that we’ve had from decades of study on this is the demonstrated mental health harm of ostracizing and stigmatizing trans youth.”
Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat and the only LGBTQ member of the Senate, said the bill puts the state’s young transgender students at risk.
“I speak as a pastor, as a trained theologian when I say to all of the girls, trans and cis, non-binary, non-gender conforming: I want you to know that despite what you might have heard today, you are loved, and you are created by a God who transcends all concepts of gender. And so no matter what other people tell you, know that you are loved and we are fighting for you and will keep fighting for you,” Jackson said.
Because the bill specifies that no male may play on a female team unless there is not an equivalent program for males, it could inadvertently open girls’ volleyball or slow-pitch softball teams up to cisgender boys, Jackson said.
Georgia’s bill comes as LGBTQ youth are being targeted around the country. The Florida House of Representatives Thursday passed a bill limiting classroom discussions of sexual orientation, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbot on Tuesday told state agencies the standard medical treatments provided to transgender children should be reported as child abuse.
Critics say the bill, if signed into law, will lead to costly court battles in Georgia. Legal challenges are pending against similar laws in other states, including in West Virginia where the law has so far been blocked from taking effect. Bills targeting transgender student-athletes have been filed in about half the country.
Michael Shutt, southern regional director for Lambda Legal, argued the measure violates federal law banning sex discrimination in education.
“If this bill is enacted, it would stigmatize and discriminate against transgender students, create serious privacy and harassment risks for student athletes, and invite no-win litigation against school districts,” Shutt said. “Excluding transgender students from athletics is not only harmful for those students, it also violates federal law and places schools at greater risk for liability.”
In Georgia, similar measures were proposed last year but did not make it far. Opponents have accused the GOP-controlled Legislature of trying to appease its base in an election year.
“This is not about fairness in sports because there is nothing fair about this bill,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, which advocates on behalf of the state’s LGBTQ residents.
“This really is the epitome of a solution in search of a problem,” he also said. “And we hope that the Legislature will spend its final few weeks looking at the issues that truly impact all Georgians and not be sidetracked by issues like this that divide us and cause harm and specifically bully some of our most vulnerable kids and children in our schools.”
State Rep. Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat who is openly gay, said he was hopeful the House would be less receptive to the proposal. Park, who watched the debate from the Senate chamber Thursday, called the bill “mean spirited, disgusting and unfortunate.”
“Clearly, it seems the House is much more reasonable than the Senate when it comes to treating all Georgians with equal dignity and respect,” he said. “So, we’ll see how the legislative process plays out.”
The spate of transgender sports bans is a worrying trend, says Alex Ames, organizing director of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, group of teenagers and young adults advocating on progressive issues.
“When I think about these policies, I think we are scaring parents into thinking, one, trans kids are dangerous, and they are a danger to your child,” Ames said. “But two, that if a parent is accepting of their child who is transgender, whether you’re in Texas or Florida, or Georgia, that is wrong, that you should not accept your child as who they are and who they become. And that’s why we’re seeing parents criminalized in Texas, and we’re seeing bills like this one in Georgia that are meant to exile trans people from their schools and communities.”
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