Rep. Claire Cory said her vote on HB 1298 was the hardest she’ll probably ever cast.
The bill would effectively bar transgender athletes from sports in North Dakota public schools and universities, denying public funding if trans athletes are allowed to compete on a team opposite their birth sex. Cory, after wrestling with the bill and what it could mean, voted in support. It’s now headed to the North Dakota Senate, with a 65-26 House vote backing it.
Advocates for the transgender community point out that the bill ostracizes transgender athletes, who must weigh being themselves against playing sports. What’s more, the state’s high school sports association already has bylaws to deal with this sort of thing; transgender women are required to finish a year of testosterone suppression before competing on a girls’ team.
But for supporters like Cory, R-Grand Forks, the bill means protection for women.
“I don't want to be discriminatory, but I do want to stand up for women — for girls in high school,” Cory said this week.
In voting to support the bill, Cory is a lot like her party, but a little less like her closest GOP neighbors. Counting House votes from 16 legislative districts running along North Dakota’s urban border with Minnesota — stretching from Grand Forks to Fargo to Wahpeton — the bill was defeated 21-11. Nine of those votes against the bill were Republicans — and those nine make up the majority of GOP representatives statewide who broke with their party and opposed HB 1298.
That gap highlights the political divide between North Dakota’s deeply conservative rural regions and its more urban, eastern spine — and it raises questions over the future of the party’s positions on social issues.
For the last several years, the state party’s future on LGBT matters appeared to point leftward, even if that shift might still take years. In 2018, then 24-year-old Rep. Jake Blum — the Republican who previously held Cory’s seat — said there was a “generational gap” in the party. That year, he voted to extend protections against employment and housing discrimination to LGBT persons, breaking with much of his party in doing so.
"The younger members of the GOP tend to be a little more socially moderate,” state Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, said this week, pointing out softening opposition to marijuana use in particular. Still in his late 30s, he counts himself among that younger generation. “I think there is a changing of the guard on where they stand on LGBTQ issues."
That’s no surprise – attitudes toward sexual minorities have been changing for years. Gallup polling found nationwide support for same-sex marriage at merely 25% in 1996; in 2020, it was measured at 67%, a tectonic generational shift.
But it’s not clear how far that leftward shift is going in North Dakota. Cory, a UND student and one of the Legislature’s youngest members, sees HB 1298 as a different bill than simple employment or housing protections for LGBT people — a bill complicated by her concerns for young women in athletics. And Meyer said he’s still weighing exactly how he’ll vote.
"For me, I have three sisters, I've got three nieces, and they're talking to me too. They have certain concerns with things,” Meyer said. “You want to balance it out, make sure we're doing what's right. I'm pretty much on the fence right now."
Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, and Cory’s running mate in District 42, voted against HB 1298. She said the bill seemed unnecessary, and that there already are plenty of protections in place that help address the matter.
“You know, everyone (in the Legislature) comes from extremely different backgrounds — from very rural to highly populated,” she said. “And I think that's why we have some interesting discussions in floor debates. Because everyone has such a different, diverse background.”
Grand Forks-area votes for the bill include Cory, as well as Reps. Steve Vetter, Mark Owens and Mark Sanford — all Republicans. Votes against include O'Brien and Democratic-NPL Reps. Mary Adams, Zack Ista and Corey Mock.
Regardless of how Republicans vote on the bill — and how the party splits by age or by geography — the issue is settled in the Democratic caucus, which voted unanimously in the House to oppose the bill.
“We need to start accepting people for who they are and where they're coming from,” Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, said. "Nobody asked us for our opinion on this. It isn't any of our business. I think we've got many, far more reaching problems in our state than trying to figure out what sports team a transgender person should be on."