Credit: Adam Rhodes

At least 119 bills restricting the participation of trans youth in organized sports have been introduced in statehouses across the country since January 2021. Most of them were voted down, or, like one introduced in the Illinois State Assembly by a downstate representative last year, failed to advance by the end of the legislative session. But nearly a dozen other states have passed such laws.

Advocates in Illinois say the specter of such bills could have a chilling effect on trans youth participation in sports, despite guidance issued by the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) in December, which states that both Illinois and federal law support trans students’ access to sport teams that align with their gender identity. 

“Young people learn a lot of important life lessons in sports: leadership, confidence, self-respect, and what it means to be part of a team,” says Myles Brady Davis, press secretary at Equality Illinois, an LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group. “Bills attempting to shut trans youth out of those opportunities promote discrimination and encourage harassment.”

On March 3, Iowa’s Republican governor Kim Reynolds signed the latest bill that would bar transgender student athletes from participating in sports that comport with their gender identities as opposed to their sex assigned at birth. NBC reports that the bill, which bars trans women and girls from competing on female sports teams “from kindergarten through college,” is the 11th such bill passed in the United States.

In Illinois, the Democrat-controlled State Assembly has signaled strong support for trans people. And in addition to the guidance issued by IDHR in December, the Illinois High School Association, which regulates most high school sports competitions in the states, also provides a framework for trans athletes to play on teams that comport with their gender identities. 

But trans students who may not be aware of those protections could be dissuaded from sports they would otherwise have access to by the debate overtaking statehouses across the country, says Carolyn Wahlskog, director of operations and programming at LGBTQ+ advocacy group Youth Outlook.

And even with these robust protections, Republican legislators in the state are still taking aim at trans youth. 

State representative David Friess—a Republican who represents Red Bud and surrounding areas—filed a bill in May 2021 to amend the state’s Interscholastic Athletic Organization Act to require that school sports be segregated by gender, and force students to compete as their  biological sex, even if it does not comport with their gender identity. The bill would have also required a written statement stating a student’s biological sex and whether they had been taking any “performance enhancing drugs.” 

The bill stalled in committee last year, and Friess says that Democratic committee members have all but refused to call the bill. It’s an issue he still hopes his colleagues consider, however. The bill’s cosponsors, Adam Niemerg (R-109) and Amy Grant (R-42), did not respond to inquiries by presstime. 

“I would love to push [the bill],” Friess says. But he admits that he doubts it will go anywhere. 

Wahlskog says bills like Friess’s that are doomed from the start target trans students for the sake of political clout.

“[Legislators] know it’s not going to pass, they’re just doing it for their constituents,” she says. “Bills like this are really unfortunate for our state because it shows young people that there are people who don’t want them to feel included just because of their orientation and gender identity and that’s the exact opposite of the message we should be putting out there to young people.”

In an interview with the Reader about the bill, Friess made a number of comments that reflect common criticisms of the inclusion of transgender athletes, namely trans women, in sports with cisgender athletes. Some of his statements were also outwardly transphobic. 

“Trans women, who are actually boys, should not be competing [with cisgender women],” Friess says. “This is not an anti-trans bill, this is really a pro-female athlete bill.” He adds that the inclusion of trans athletes could also threaten sports scholarships that he says “people in the inner city” need to “escape.” 

Critics of transgender athletes—and trans women in particular—often argue that they enjoy an unfair competitive advantage over cisgender athletes. Testosterone as a determinant of one’s athletic ability is central to those arguments. But experts have repeatedly argued that these claims rely too heavily on outdated notions about the hormone, its role in the human body, and who it affects.

In 2018, South African runner and Olympic medalist Caster Semenya, an intersex person who was assigned a female gender at birth, sued the International Amateur Athletic Federation after the organization changed its rules to force women competitors with high testosterone levels to take medication to lower them. The case is ongoing.

Jack Turban, a psychiatrist who studies the mental health of trans youth, noted last year in Scientific American that some cisgender women may have elevated testosterone levels due to an endocrine disorder. Turban also pointed out that trans girls who are taking puberty blockers, which inhibit the body’s hormone production, have “negligible” levels of testosterone.  

Even if trans athletes enjoyed some competitive advantage, Turban and others point out that there are also myriad, significant factors that often prevent trans student athletes from succeeding in sports. Research has shown that trans youth disproportionately deal with mental illness, including depression and anxiety, and are more likely to experience homelessness.

And for all the commotion about trans athletes taking over youth sports, most lawmakers have either been unable to name a single athlete in their state or admit that only a small number of trans athletes even compete in high school sports.

Advocates for trans youth worry that Friess’s bill could have harmful impacts on trans youth in the state even though it stalled in committee. 

“We know the ugly rhetoric surrounding them is having a real impact on the mental health and well-being [of] LGBTQ young people,” Brady Davis says. 

Echoing those concerns, LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention group The Trevor Project said in January that 85 percent of trans and nobinary youth told the group as part of a poll in late 2021 that debates over anti-trans bills like Friess’s have negatively impacted their mental health. 

“Trans kids want the opportunity to play sports for the same reason other kids do: to be a part of a team where they feel like they belong,” Brady Davis says. “For legislators to try and discriminate against kids and ban them from playing because they’re trans denies these kids this vital important childhood experience and all the lessons it teaches.”

But for those same trans kids who are feeling the effects of being caught in the crossfire of the latest culture war, advocates and supporters like Wahlskog say the solution is very simple.

“We like to tell them that if you want to play, you can play,” Wahlskog says.