Targeting vulnerable transgender kids? A cruel and dangerous waste of time

Lily Freeman, a 15-year-old transgender girl from Bucks County, speaking up against HB 972 at a rally in the Capitol Rotunda. (Youtube Screenshot.)

By John L. Micek

The other day, the host of a television public affairs show asked me what I thought a group of Republican lawmakers were trying to accomplish as they pursue passage of a gratuitously cruel bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing on women’s sports teams.

I’ll admit it. I was stumped.

I couldn’t think of a single, measurable public good that would come from the bill sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Cumberland, and others, that cleared a critical legislative committee earlier this week.

But I could think of plenty that was wrong with it.

Because when I think about that bill, all I can think about is the pain that creased the face of Lily Freeman, a 15-year-old transgender young woman from Bucks County, as she talked about the destructive impact that Gleim’s proposal would have on her and other transgender young women who have found refuge and acceptance in interscholastic athletics.

“It’s all about stripping away the connection that girls have to each other,” she said. “People in power are stripping away the definition of what it means to be a woman.”

Freeman’s about my daughter’s age — she’s 16 now, and proudly out. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether, once Republicans got done banning the transgender kids, they’d come for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or non-binary kids next.

It’s not idle speculation. We’re already halfway there. Florida has its hateful ‘Don’t Say Gay” bill. Lawmakers in 35 states have introduced legislation attacking LGBTQ+ people, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

And here at home, while lawmakers keep busy with bridge renamings and other destructive time-wasters, Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled General Assembly can’t even get around to embedding anti-discrimination protections for its LGBTQ citizens into state law — even when polling data shows that a majority of people, including Republicans, support it.

Freeman was clearly thinking the same thing. She implored lawmakers to “focus on the real issues” that all women face, such as “the pay gap, eating disorders, and sexual abuse.

“Pennsylvania is my home. Don’t let this hurtful, destructive bill come up for a vote,” she continued, her voice rising in anger. “We are trans people. We are here. And we are never going away.”

During this week’s committee meeting, Gleim, meanwhile, seemed a little confused — or was at least deliberately disingenuous — about the problem her bill, which faces a guaranteed gubernatorial veto, purports to solve.

“Allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports reverses nearly 50 years of hard-earned advances for women and destroys fair competition in women’s athletic opportunities,” Gleim said, according to City & State Pa. “Biologically, males and females are different. This fact simply cannot be reversed through surgery or changes in hormones.”

Gleim’s bill, as it’s currently written, would require school sports teams to be explicitly designated as male teams, female teams or coed teams. It would also require that membership on those teams be based on an athlete’s assigned sex at birth, City & State PA reported. Under the proposal, teams designated for women or girls “may not be open to students of the male sex.”

In this, Gleim is utterly wrong. The science is simply not on her side. You’re not going to find men on women’s sports teams. That’s because transgender women are women.

“The popular belief that your sex arises only from your chromosomal makeup is wrong. The truth is, your biological sex isn’t carved in stone, but a living system with the potential for change,” Simón(e) D Sun, a doctoral candidate in the Tsien Lab at New York University’s Neuroscience Institute, wrote in a June 2019 column for Scientific American.

“The science is clear and conclusive: sex is not binary, transgender people are real,” Sun continued. “It is time that we acknowledge this. Defining a person’s sex identity using decontextualized ‘facts’ is unscientific and dehumanizing. The trans experience provides essential insights into the science of sex and scientifically demonstrates that uncommon and atypical phenomena are vital for a successful living system. Even the scientific endeavor itself is quantifiably better when it is more inclusive and diverse.”

And if it’s athletic performance and integrity that Gleim and her colleagues are trying to protect, well, they’re wrong there, too.

“A person’s genetic make-up and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance,” Dr. Joshua D. Safer, the executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, wrote in a recent American Civil Liberties Union fact sheet on the issue.

And for a transgender woman athlete who meets NCAA standards, “there is no inherent reason why her physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman,” Safer wrote.

The fact is, transgender youth desperately need the feeling of belonging and inclusion that sports offers to so many young people. They are under pressure enough — and, too often, that pressure has deadly consequences.

“In 2018, the University of Texas at Austin led one of the most ambitious studies on transgender youth aged 15 to 21 to gauge the state of their mental health. Earlier studies have already demonstrated that 82% of transgender folks experience suicidal ideation, and 40% attempt it in their lifetime — the rates are higher for trans teens,” Lazarus Nance Letcher, a transgender individual, and Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexicowrote in a March 18 Capital-Star op-Ed.

Betsy Torg, of Philadelphia, who’s the parent of a transgender child, hit the nail on the head during the same Capitol news conference where Freeman offered her searing testimony.

Gleim’s bill “rules some girls out, instead of ruling some girls in, and that’s not right,” she said.

So maybe that’s what Gleim’s bill accomplishes: It needlessly hurts and excludes vulnerable children, isolates them, and drives up their risk of dying by suicide in the name of fake science and false field-leveling that nobody wants and no one asked for.

Well done.

John L. Micek is editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this article first appeared.

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