BISMARCK — A bill that would bar high school and collegiate transgender athletes from competing in North Dakota sports under their identifying gender prompted marathon testimony from backers and opponents on Monday, Jan. 25.
Supporters of House Bill 1298 have pitched it as needed legislation to protect fair competition for women athletes in the face of shifting national norms on gender issues. And while state LGBTQ advocacy groups have denounced it as "an attack on transgender North Dakotans," its lead sponsor, Rep. Brian Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said the bill isn't targeting transgender athletes, but rather a broader phenomenon of gender crossover in sports.
"The trend is increasing nationwide, and as all trends do, they eventually come to North Dakota," Koppel man said in testimony before the House Human Services committee. Though he said he was not aware of this issue coming to a head in North Dakota, he pitched his bill as a proactive measure against shifting national winds, noting in particular a new executive order by President Joe Biden that standardizes an individual's gender identity as their legal sex.
"If we were to define sex in this way in North Dakota, it would have massive consequences for women," Koppelman said. "We will, in essence, be allowing the panels and the glass ceiling to be reconstructed and reinstalled over the heads of women in the name of feelings rather than science."
While transgender athletes are not directly mentioned in Koppelman's bill, the legislation would effectively limit their sports participation by barring publicly funded institutions, like high schools and universities, from allowing any "individual who was assigned the opposite sex at birth to participate on an athletic team" that is designed "exclusively for females or exclusively for males." The bill would also outlaw any state-owned athletic facility from hosting a competition in which an athlete competes against anyone outside of the gender they were assigned at birth.
When the bill was introduced two weeks ago, state LGBTQ advocacy groups condemned it as transphobic and damaging to the opportunities and mental well-being of transgender North Dakotans. The bill was opposed on Monday by LGBTQ advocacy groups, medical representatives and the state university system.
One speaker, Dave Williams, the president of a Bismarck LGBTQ ally group and the father of a transgender student, testified to his own change of heart on his child's identity as well as his initial hesitancies about their wish to join the middle school track team.
"We felt a great deal of trepidation, to say the least, the fear for their safety and opening the door to being bullied," Williams said. He added that his child eventually convinced him of the value in joining a sports team. "The real reason for sports in school was made very clear to us. Our child went from a reclusive outcast to being part of something and allowing our child to be who they are."
Current statutes of the North Dakota High School Activities Association allow for transgender students taking hormonal supplements to compete in sports under their gender identity in certain cases. Under this policy, a student who has transitioned from female to male may compete in boys sports but is no longer eligible to compete in girls sports. A student who has transitioned from male to female may continue to compete in boys sports and is eligible to compete in girls sports after completing one year of testosterone suppression.
Backers of Koppelman's bill argue this presents potentially unfair situations, citing physiological differences between men and women and protections outlined in Title IX, a 1972 federal law aimed at protecting individuals from discrimination based on their sex in federally funded school programs.
“I think it's horrific that we are allowing that right that we fought for for so long, that has stood for 50 years around the nation... to be absolutely taken away because someone fights the biological sex they were given at conception," said Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, another sponsor on the bill.
The bill also drew opposition from several medical groups, including the North Dakota Psychiatric Society and the state's lone doctor for transitioning children, Dr. Louis Casis of Sanford Health, who pushed against arguments by backers of the bill that current laws incentivize male athletes to cross over into less competitive women's fields.
Numerous opponents of the bill also raised concerns that it could have unintended consequences beyond the direct implications for transgender individuals.
Katie Fitzsimmons, director of student affairs for the North Dakota University System, warned that the legislation could have the unintended consequence of risking the standing of state schools with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The NCAA has long allowed transgender athletes to compete with athletes of their identifying gender, and similar legislation in some other states has prompted the collegiate governing body to cancel competitions and tournaments in those states as punishment.
Responding to a question on potential tension with the NCAA, Koppelman said he is primarily focused on K-12 schools and noted there have been some conversations about removing the bill's implications for college athletics.
In addition to Koppelman and Myrdal, the bill was endorsed by the Family Policy Alliance and the North Dakota Catholic Conference. Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent for K-12 schools, has not taken a position on the bill but said she is "following the debate on it."
The House Human Services committee did not take any action on the bill on Monday.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.