Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday allowing transgender female athletes to participate in school sports under their gender identity would "destroy women's sports."
Lee's comment came after a bill, which would require middle and high school student athletes to participate in school sports under their gender assigned at birth, advanced in the House on Tuesday night.
The legislation deems it unfair for student athletes to compete with each other if they do not share the same biological sex. The bill, which argues boys can be physically stronger than girls and can therefore cause injuries to girl players, would effectively ban student participation in school sports under their chosen gender identity.
Similar legislation triggered controversy last year and failed to advance in either legislative chamber. While proponents say the bill is one of fairness and gender equality, the bill spurred criticism that it discriminates against transgender children.
"The bill is discriminatory in and of itself, but it's also misleading," said Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders. "They are not providing a path for everyone to play, they are picking a group of people and trying to find a way to sit them out."
Debate over the legislation comes in the wake of an executive order from President Joe Biden's administration, which bars gender discrimination, including denying students access to school sports based on their gender identity. "Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports," the order reads.
Lee categorized the order as a "tremendous overreach" of the federal government. Signaling support for the state legislation, Lee argued transgender athletes' participation in school sports would deprive women athletes of opportunities.
"Transgenders participating in women's sports will destroy women's sports," he said. "It will ruin the opportunity for girls to earn scholarships. It will put a glass ceiling back over women that hasn't been there."
Lee's comments referred to the transgender community in a "demeaning" way, Sanders said.
"How a small group of transgender students are going to destroy women's sports is baffling," he said. "The governor needs to learn more about transgender people and engage directly with the community."
Despite opposition, bill advances in House subcommittee
During a House K-12 subcommittee hearing Tuesday night, Tennessee Rep. Scott Cepicky argued his bill would assure fairness between male and female athletes. He compared his legislation to safeguarding one's right to a fair trial, guaranteeing fair treatment to children with disabilities and providing children with learning difficulties.
"The competitive balance, the safety for our girls and the opportunity for advancements in their careers," he said Tuesday night. "That's what this bill does. That's all this bill does."
Tennessee Rep. Glen Casada said the bill is "based in science."
"It's a scientific fact males are much stronger (in their) upper body and in the big muscles of the body than the females are," he said. "What we are doing here is attempting to protect the females who would compete as males in field hockey and wrestling and these other sports."
But Aly Chapman, the mother of a transgender child, spoke against the legislation Tuesday night.
Questioning the intent of the bill, Chapman said it was discriminatory against transgender, gender-diverse and intersex children whose gender identities are not defined by their biological sex. The bill would almost certainly lead to litigation and cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, she said, pointing to a similar bill passed out of the Idaho legislature last year. A federal judge ruled in August the state cannot ban transgender girls from playing on women's sports teams.
"Legislating the segregation of our diverse children’s sports participation by their sex assigned at birth could be a harmful precedent for all minority children," she said. "Not only does this discriminatory bill undermine their ability to safely belong to their community, it essentially excludes them from schools and sports participation."
There are lots of ways to address gender inequality, such as increasing the number of women players and coaches and funding more facilities for female athletes, Sanders said. But the bill does not address the real problem, he said.
"If people are really concerned about what a top threat to women's and girls' sports (is), then they really should be looking at some other issues," he said.