MADISON, Wisconsin — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly approved two bills Wednesday that would protect girls’ and women’s school sports from participation by biological males who identify as females — votes that some Democrat lawmakers equated to hateful discrimination that could increase the likelihood of suicide among students who have changed gender identity.
Lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 195 and Assembly Bill 196 by identical 59-38 votes and sent them on to the state Senate. The first bill defines sports in the University of Wisconsin and technical college sports based on the sex of the participants, “determined by a physician at birth and reflected on the birth certificate.” The second has the same regulations for public schools and private schools that participate in the school-choice program. The bills prohibit biological males from competing in female sports, and create a co-ed category for athletes who wish to compete against males and females.
Debate on the legislation was not only partisan but at times vitriolic. Several Democrat lawmakers who opposed the bills accused Republican supporters of being “mean-spirited,” “cruel,” “cold-hearted,” and hating homosexuals and those who have changed their gender identity. One lawmaker said supporters of the bills sound like “schoolyard bullies.”
“I cannot believe you can sit there cold-heartedly and let these children be used politically. You don’t have people hammering down your doors asking for this legislation,” insisted Rep. Christine Sinicki, a Milwaukee Democrat. “This is nothing but red meat for you, and the children are going to suffer. Mr. Speaker, I just cannot believe that this body can be that cruel.”
Rep. Kristina M. Shelton, a Democrat from Green Bay, called the bills a “fishing expedition” and “a bill in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.” She described the proposals as not only harmful but life-threatening, due to increased risk of self-harming behavior when students are not accepted under their preferred gender identity. Then she issued a not-so-veiled threat.
“The Wisconsin State Legislature should not be one of the things that causes our children harm,” Shelton said. “Everyone counts, folks, but we’re all accountable, and those that vote yes on this bill will be held accountable.”
Very similar to the public hearings held May 26 at the Wisconsin Capitol, Wednesday’s debate showed differences so sharp it’s hard to imagine any room for common ground. Democrats insisted the votes were a waste of time, because Democrat Gov. Tony Evers will veto the bills. Republicans countered that protecting girls’ and women’s sports from usurpation by biological males is important. With Evers’ likely veto and his re-election bid on the horizon, the issue of females in school sports will become prominent in the 2022 race for governor.
The worldviews of the partisans are worlds apart, but they boil down to a key question: what makes male and female? Supporters of the bills say genetics assigns biological sex at birth, while opponents say a person can decide whether they are male or female and choose their “gender identity.”
“This isn’t bigotry, this is science,” said Rep. Janel Brandtjen, a Republican from Menominee Falls and co-sponsor of both bills. Brandtjen predicted that not protecting girls and young women from competition from biological males will mean the end of female sports in high schools and colleges.
“Men have better lung capacity. They have different muscle mass in their legs. They have stronger ability in their upper arms,” Brandtjen said. “Nobody hates anybody in this process. What about all the women who’ve worked so hard to have that opportunity to compete? It’s not a level playing field. …How about for those women who found out they could never win? How about those girls that get up every day, they save their money, they go to sports camps to be that much better, to be a champion. It’s discipline, it’s training. But they’re never going to win, because the biology is settled and you’re not going to win.”
Rep. Barbara Dittrich, the bills’ primary sponsor, decried the attacks from the left, saying she was contacted by groups of constituents, including parents and student athletes, who have major concerns about males in female sports. “We’ve heard some really unkind rhetoric here and it hasn’t come from my side of the aisle,” said Dittrich, a Republican from Oconomowoc. “It’s rather disingenuous to falsely accuse others of hate and marginalization when you spew it yourself.”
Dittrich said her research in preparing the bills identified stark realities. “I’ve learned in this time that no matter the hormone treatment, biological males still maintain greater bone density, have greater heart and lung capacity, remain taller on average than biological females; have greater hemoglobin levels, allowing muscles to oxygenate faster than biological females and have greater fast-twitch muscle fibers which give them explosive power,” she said.
“For the party that has beaten the drum over the past year, ‘follow the science,’” Dittrich said, “let me remind you that regardless of these words you cannot make XY DNA (into) XX DNA, nor negate the physiological advantages that remain, simply because one identifies as a given gender.”
Wisconsin is among several dozen states that have introduced or approved similar legislation to keep biological males from competing in female sports. On June 1, Florida became the latest, when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, saying, “In Florida, girls are going to play girls sports and boys are going to play boys sports.” 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.
Opponents of Wisconsin’s proposals predicted that if they were enacted, Wisconsin would be at odds with regulations from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which has threatened states that approve so-called transgender bans in college sports with losing the opportunity to host NCAA championship tournaments.
“There is no good reason to bar transgender youth from playing on the team that best aligns with their gender identity,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Democrat from Stevens Point. She called the bills “stimgatizing and isolating, and they put our neighbors’ physical and mental health at risk for no valid reason.”
The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state’s five bishops, supports the legislation. In written testimony submitted for the public hearing, the WCC cited guidance from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that in education and sports, “we must seek to avoid anything that debases human dignity, including rejection of a person’s body or unequal treatment between men and women. This has particular relevance in athletics, where male competition in activities designated for women and girls can be both unfair and, especially in high-contact sports, unsafe.”
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