HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — Though it was introduced back in April, a bill in the state legislature that would ban transgender girls at public schools from playing female sports hasn’t gone anywhere but the House Education committee.
It probably won’t leave there anytime soon, but the underlying issue is getting lawmakers’ attention anyway.
At a hearing in Harrisburg Wednesday, lawmakers on that committee heard from medical experts, advocates and students themselves on what a sex-based ban could mean for transgender athletes and the sports they play.
“We can’t avoid those difficult subjects,” committee chair Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie) said. “We have to be able to talk about them, and the only way that we’re going to create good policy is to better understand it.”
Sonney admitted that the bill is “not a priority” for that panel right now. But he and others felt motivated to talk about the idea because it’s already become law in a number of southern states.
Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Florida have all recently approved bans on transgender girls’ participation in female sports, each claiming to be leveling the playing field for female athletes. Under each of them, students can only participate in sports that match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Some of those laws are being challenged in court.
“For me and other cisgendered girls, we don’t lose anything by playing with or against girls who might be different from us.”
— Sophia Tellis
Sophia Tellis is an incoming high school sophomore and soccer player at Dallas High School in northeastern Pennsylvania. She told House lawmakers that policy is fine for cisgendered people like her, whose sex assigned at birth matches their gender.
But for transgender students, that’s not the case. Under those same rules, Tellis said those kids would be sidelined over what she calls a non-issue.
“If we win or lose, it’s because of our skill as players, not whether we’re trans or cis. The issue here is inclusion, female rights,” Tellis said.
“For me and other cisgendered girls, we don’t lose anything by playing with or against girls who might be different from us. But if trans girls are banned they lose playing the sport they love, they lose their teammates, and they lose another chance to be a normal kid.”
Some people who testified at the House panel pointed to the International Federation of Sports Medicine, which says there isn’t enough research out there to “adequately inform policy” on who should get to play in certain sports classes.
In a paper authored in March, IFSM researchers said that based on what is known, differences in athletic performance are often driven by a person’s genetic traits — like height.
“Ultimately, even the most evidence-based policies will not eliminate differences in sporting performance between athletes in the elite category of female sports. However, any advantage held by a person belonging to an athlete in this category could be considered part of the athlete’s unique individuality,” they wrote.
Though most studies have focused on athletic performance in transgender and cisgendered adults, hardly any have focused on kids. But Dr. Gerald Montano, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told lawmakers that in his own work with transgender and gender diverse children, he’s come to a similar conclusion.
“There are variations on certain athletes,” Montano said. “Just because someone may be a transgender girl, they may be just as comparable in size and ability to girls because of those variations.”
Transgender scientist and runner Joanna Harper published one of the first studies examining the effect of changing testosterone levels among transgender women in 2015. She collected data from eight runners who mostly earned slower race times after hormone therapy, but their performance remained competitive with their age- and sex-matched peers.
Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto the measure if it were to pass.
Advocates like Naiymah Sanchez of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said lawmakers should instead approve more comprehensive legal protections for transgender and gender diverse people.
“There’s this perception that … LGBT people are people are protected under sex discrimination [laws], but as we saw right here in this hearing, they [lawmakers] don’t understand that sex discrimination includes gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation,” Sanchez said.