Two Ohio bills would ban transgender girls from female sports

Anna Staver
The Columbus Dispatch

The national debate over how transgender athletes compete in high school and college sports has arrived in Ohio. 

Two bills working their way through the legislature would ban transgender girls from joining female teams in both high school and college. They would, instead, have to join the male teams or co-ed teams. And schools that knowingly violated these rules could find themselves facing civil lawsuits. 

The Republican women backing these bills say transgender girls have biological advantages that make them faster, stronger and more likely to win against their cisgender peers. 

Opponents, however, see it as discrimination against an incredibly small group of kids who face much higher rates of bullying, depression and suicide. 

Illustration by Gannett designers

A level playing field

What motivates the women sponsoring House Bill 61 and Senate Bill 132 is a sense of fairness.

Both Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, and Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, believe transgender girls have unfair advantages when it comes to sports. 

Sen. Kristina D. Roegner, R-Hudson

"Biological males possess many physiological advantages over females, including greater lung capacity, larger hearts, higher red blood cell counts, stronger tendons and ligaments, greater muscle strength, and increased bone density," Powell said during her testimony on House Bill 61 Wednesday. 

And the proof of those advantages is all around us, said Roegner, who was herself a college athlete. 

Ohio's statewide record for the boy's 100-meter dash is 10.38 seconds. The world record for the women's 100-meter dash (set by U.S. Olympian Florence Griffith-Joyner) is 10.49 seconds. 

"When it comes to those types of sports, it’s just an issue of absolute fairness," Roegner said.

The science of success and transgender athletes

What gives one student-athlete the advantage over another is a matter of both medical and social debate.

Many endocrinologists believe testosterone levels during puberty are responsible for a lot of the competitive advantages Republican lawmakers attribute to transgender girls.

"Before puberty, boys and girls have the same levels of circulating testosterone," endocrinologist Joshua Safer wrote in his expert testimony challenging Idaho's recent transgender athlete law. 

Safer, who serves on a committee that drafts transgender medicine guidelines for the Olympics, said that starts to diverge around age 12 – the same time you start to see differences in athletic performance. 

So, what happens when transgender women decrease their testosterone levels? 

The short answer is their performance goes down. The longer, more complicated answer is that the science isn't settled on how long those medications should be taken before competition and whether that timeline is different for those who transition before puberty. 

But what about the biology that remains after hormone therapy like larger hearts and bigger lung capacity?

Safer said they could put transgender girls at a disadvantage.

"Having larger bones without corresponding levels of testosterone and muscle mass would mean that a runner has a bigger body to propel with less power to propel it," he wrote.

'Bill will harm the mental health of some of Ohio's most vulnerable children'

Both the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee require hormone therapy and testing for their transgender athletes. 

But groups like TransAthlete call hormone therapy requirements "invasive disclosures."

Not all transgender kids have the money, desire or support from family members that doctors require for hormone suppressing drugs, Transform Cincy co-founder Tristan Vaught said. And transgender students – especially trans kids of color – have all kinds of other disadvantages these bills don't take into account.

Tristan Vaught, co-founder of Transform Cincy

"You're never going to find a level playing field," Vaught said. "You’re going to have genetic advantages; you’re going to have work ethic advantages; you're going to have economic advantages."

Some kids pay for private coaches and exclusive summer camps. Others students depend on their school for breakfast. And Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps can simply be born with biological differences that contribute to their record-setting stats. 

Phelps' wingspan is longer than it should be for a man his height, his ankles are double-jointed and his body produces 50% less lactic acid (the hormone that makes your muscles feel tired) than the average human.

"There is so much more wound up in this particular bill than just physiological advantage," Rep. Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, said. "This bill will harm the mental health of some of Ohio's most vulnerable children."

The bill's sponsors insist that's not their intention.

"I want to be absolutely clear on this. This bill is not meant to hurt anybody," Roegner said. "It is simply meant to protect young women when they play sports."

Young women, Powell said, could be harmed by losing titles, championships and scholarships to people they believe got an unfair leg up.

"That opportunity is being ripped away from them by biological males," she said. 

Transgender athletes in Ohio are a tiny percentage

The current rules for high school sports are set by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

Member schools (both public and private) vote on changes to the bylaws annually – including whether to allow transgender athletes to play on teams that match their gender identity. 

In 2014, OHSAA members voted to permit transgender girls to compete following a year of hormone therapy or test results that show "sound medical evidence that she does not possess physical (bone structure, muscle mass, testosterone, hormonal, etc.) or physiological advantages over genetic females of the same age group."

Three years later, the question came up again. The schools voted 435 to 177 in favor of the policy with seven schools abstaining. 

About 400,000 kids play on middle and high school sports teams in Ohio each year and less than 0.003% are transgender girls. The association has approved a total of 35 transgender male athletes and 11 transgender female athletes over the six years its policy has been in place. 

No transgender athlete holds a state record.

"We're not talking about elite athletes here," Lightbody said. "These are children who want to play on a team with their friends."

The federal perspective under Joe Biden

President Joe Biden issued an executive order in January directing the government to take a Supreme Court ruling extending workplace protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and apply them to education. 

"Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports," according to the order. 

The Conservative Political Action Conference highlighted the issue in February, and dozens of state legislatures introduced bills to set limits on the participation of transgender athletes in school sports. 

But the issue has been percolating for years. 

Parents in Connecticut started online petitions and eventually filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of their daughters, claiming the state's policy on transgender athletes violated Title IX.

The case is still being litigated, but the controversy centered around two transgender female sprinters who won a combined 15 championships starting in 2017. 

In this Friday, Feb. 14, 2020 photo, Canton High School's Chelsea Mitchell, left, runs to beat Terry Miller, center, of Bloomfield, in the CIAC Class S track and field championships at Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven, Conn. center. Between 2017 and 2019, transgender sprinters Miller and Andraya Yearwood combined to win 15 championship races, prompting a lawsuit on behalf of four cisgender girls. (Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)

Connecticut is one of 17 states that allow transgender athletes to compete without hormone therapy or other medical testings. The plaintiffs said that gave those sprinters a clear advantage. 

The transgender sprinters, who are represented by the ACLU, disagree. 

For one thing, a cisgender girl named in the lawsuit defeated the transgender sprinters in a state championship race just two days after the suit was filed. And neither of the transgender young women in question received athletic scholarships. 

No openly transgender athlete has competed in the Olympics, and only one transgender female holds a collegiate title. But lawmakers in 30 states have introduced bills to limit how transgender athletes can compete. Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennesse's proposals have become law. 

Supporters of the Ohio bills say it's not about the number of transgender athletes and where they rank across the country, it's about whether letting them play on female teams is fair. 

"Every child will still have the ability to compete in our state. We want every child to compete," Powell said. "We're just protecting the integrity of women's sports."