MADISON, Wisconsin — Legislation that would prevent biological males from competing in female sports in Wisconsin’s public schools and colleges drew hours of impassioned testimony at the state Capitol on Wednesday, with both sides saying the issue is about fairness and protection from discrimination. There was sharp disagreement, however, over who needs protecting and who is being victimized.
Four bills attracted widespread comment before three committees of the Wisconsin Legislature. Two of the bills would ban males who consider themselves female from participating in girls’ school sports. Two other bills would extend the same provisions to public-college athletics in the state. Wednesday’s debate put Wisconsin among the dozens of states debating bills to keep biological males out of girls’ and women’s sports.
Under Assembly Bill 196 and Senate Bill 322, schools would be required to classify sports and teams as male, female or co-ed, based on the sex of the participants as determined by a doctor at birth and shown on birth certificates. The bills would further prohibit a biological male from competing on sports designed for girls or young women. The regulations would apply to interscholastic, intramural and club teams and sports. Under Assembly Bill 195 and Senate Bill 323, these regulations would also apply at the college level. Private K-12 schools that participate in the school-choice program would also be included under the proposed laws.
Proponents of the legislation said the goal is to protect girls and young women from being robbed of achievements or places on sports teams by stronger and faster biological males who consider themselves female. It also is designed to protect females from injury from larger and stronger males, they said.
“Today, Wisconsin women’s voices will be heard,” said Rep. Barbara Dittrich, Republican from Oconomowoc, sponsor of what she calls the Protecting Women in Sports Act. Testifying before the Assembly Committee on Education, Dittrich said she brought the bills forward because of the pleadings of parents whose daughters compete in sports.
“There is a whole army of women in Wisconsin sports that are fed up with giving their titles and awards to those who were born biological males,” Dittrich said. “In fact, there are women who wanted to testify today who were fearful to come before this committee because they have been harassed and shamed into silence by the media, lawmakers, transgender community and even by employers. These women have worked hard and earned their accolades in their own right and they deserve to have their Title IX rights protected.”
Dittrich was referring to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, federal law that protects people from discrimination based on sex, in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX applies to schools, local and state educational agencies, and other institutions that receive federal financial assistance. This includes 17,600 local school districts, more than 5,000 postsecondary institutions, as well as for-profit schools, libraries and museums.
“That law was historic in its provisions honoring and protecting the abilities and achievements of women in their own divisions in competitive sports,” Dittrich said. “Prior to that time, females were not offered the opportunities to compete in anything other than informal activities, lacking equipment, resources and scholarships.”
Dittrich said it is “scientific biological fact” that males have more muscle mass, higher bone density and often greater height than females. Advantages for biological males remain, regardless of hormone therapy or gender-reassignment surgery, she said. “It is these immutable characteristics that are robbing women of their achievement and awards,” Dittrich said. “…Women are finding their records smashed by biological males, more often recording wins against female competitors.”
Dittrich rejected the notion that the proposals constitute “trans-phobia” or are hateful. “This is a matter of fairness based on facts that cannot be changed by the opinion of special-interest groups,” she said. The bills pose a central question, Dittrich said: “Do we support the rights of women ensconced in federal law or do we once again stand for male advantage in sports, taking us back in history?”
The sides in the debate could not be further apart, with proponents citing the unchanging characteristics of sex and opponents focusing on gender identity. “I am truly confused, truly confused about the concern for women in sports when transgender women are women,” said Rep. Sondy Pope, Democrat of Mount Horeb. “This bill does exactly the things that you claim are harm being brought onto women. They are women.”
Dittrich said the bill allows a co-ed sports category “for people who want to have all genders, so it’s an incredibly inclusive bill.” She said she “adamantly” disagrees “that the DNA of a male changes when they transition because they feel like a woman.”
Sarah Parshall Perry, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said the policies of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association “threaten to upend the hard-fought equality of women and girls in this state.” The WIAA allows biological males who consider themselves female to participate on girls’ teams if they have undergone one year of male-hormone-suppression therapy, she said.
“This is a laughably inadequate attempt to fundamentally change decades-long precedent on sex-segregated sports,” said Perry, testifying before the Senate Committee on Human Services, Children and Families. “Let me be clear. One year of testosterone-suppression therapy does nothing to change in any meaningful way the faster muscle-twitch response, greater bone density, greater muscle mass and higher lung capacity that biological boys possess when compared to girls. Such biological distinctions, which give them a decided if not overwhelming advantage over females in athletic competition, cannot be suppressed, period, by hormones or otherwise.”
A study by two Duke University law professors comparing Olympic track champion Allyson Felix’s lifetime best of 49.26 seconds in the 400-meter dash to the times of boys and men around the world, showed Felix’s time was beaten 15,000 times, Perry said.
“It would be ironic and wrong to enable biological males who declare themselves to be women based on their own sense of a wholly subjective, malleable and evolving gender identity to obtain an unfair and discriminatory advantage over biological women,” Perry said, “whose immutable, unchanging sex has been recognized for decades as worthy of protection under well-established federal law.”
Some three dozen states are considering legislation to protect girls and young women in school sports from having to compete against biological males who identify as female. In late April, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation banning biological males who identify as females from participating on girls’ teams in public school sports. In May 2020, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed into law a measure banning biological males from competing on female teams in public schools and colleges and universities. That law is being challenged in federal court. In April 2021, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a similar bill.
According to the advocacy group Save Women’s Sports, 37 states have introduced bills or passed laws to keep biological males from girls’ and women’s sports. Montana, Idaho, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia have approved such legislation, while the other states, from Florida to Texas to Wisconsin, are considering proposals, the group says.
Beth Stelzer, founder of Save Women’s Sports, told Wisconsin lawmakers she founded the group to represent a silenced majority who want to protect girls’ and women’s sports. “This issue should not be a partisan issue,” said Stelzer, an amateur power lifter from Minnesota. “It is not about politics or religion. It is common sense.”
“We have a dimorphic human species,” Stelzer said. “That means there are two sexes. We cannot change them. You cannot make a male a woman by lowering your testosterone. Women are not a hormone level.” She said the issue is a “battle to protect reality.”
Dr. Brittany Allen, a pediatrician representing the Wisconsin chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the legislation “would cause unnecessary harm to the health and well-being of transgender youth in Wisconsin.” She said athletics play an important role in health.
“It is beneficial for children’s physical, social and emotional development to be physically active and play sports with their peers,” said Allen, who is also co-director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Transgender Health Clinic at the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison. “Transgender kids can have difficulty feeling safe at school and are at risk for depression and self harm and these risks are highest when they experience bullying or exclusion.”
“Forcing transgender children to play on teams according to their sex assigned at birth rather than the gender they live in undermines their ability to belong to their community,” she said. “We know that children who are allowed to affirm their gender identity by living with the name and pronouns that are true for them have a lower risk of suicide than those prevented from doing so. Sports participation helps athletes develop self-esteem, correlates positively with overall mental health and appears to have a protective affect against suicide.”
The three committees considering the legislation did not vote on the measures on Wednesday. If the bills are voted out of committee, they will advance to the floors of the Assembly and Senate.
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