Alaska Legislature

Alaska Senate considers bill to limit transgender athletes in school sports

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The Alaska Senate is considering a bill that would limit the participation of transgender kids in school sports. The bill is similar to those advanced in states with Republican-controlled legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors.

But the bipartisan House majority coalition will likely block the bill even if it passes the Senate, said House Education co-chair Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, in an interview Thursday.

“It will probably stay in the drawer and not be heard,” Drummond said. “We’re trying to make things easier for schools, not harder.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, says the bill would ensure the playing field remains even for female athletes in the state, though she could not cite any examples of dominant transgender athletes in Alaska.

Several high-profile transgender women athletes have garnered attention for podium and record-worthy performances, but some say those are the exception to the rule; many other transgender athletes participate in sports without overshadowing competitors who are cisgender, meaning their gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth.

Hughes said she was compelled to introduce the bill after she heard from worried parents and coaches.

“I think we’re more in the concerned state about the possibility, but there’s already anxiety coming from girls that have competed. They are very nervous because they are seeing what’s happening in other locations,” Hughes said in an interview. “If you’re going to go into sports, it’s a big commitment and sacrifice. And we don’t want girls to decide not to do that because they realize, ‘hey, I might not be able to earn that spot.”

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In 2016, Haines High School track athlete Nattaphon “Ice” Wangyot, a transgender girl, participated in the Alaska track and field championship meet as a senior. She was outperformed by several cisgender competitors, including Tanner Hart, nee Ealum, who won 13 Alaska state women’s track and field titles during her time at Anchorage Christian School before graduating in 2016.

Hart spoke in favor of the bill during a hearing on Thursday, saying that competing against transgender athletes “is unfair and is not right.”

Allowing transgender athletes to participate in women’s sports “forces (cisgender) women to be at a disadvantage,” she said.

Hart was one of more than 30 former Alaska school athletes and coaches who signed a letter supporting the bill, pointing to some persistent biological differences between transgender and cisgender girls.

Mike Garvey, advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said that transgender kids have been participating in sports for years. In many cases, like that of Wangyot, fellow competitors don’t know they are facing a transgender athlete. But when they are dominant, their success is “highly public and politicized,” Garvey said in an interview.

“The fact that an occasional trans person succeeds in sports is not a reason to exclude all trans athletes from sports, particularly trans youth who by the fact of that exclusion suffer immense harm,” Garvey said, adding that the bill could jeopardize their mental and physical health.

The Alaska School Activities Association has a policy on transgender student participation that allows schools to determine whether a student can participate in a team that matches the student’s preferred gender based on “prior written and objective criteria adopted by the school.” If the student attends a school with no written policy, they can only participate based on their gender assigned at birth. The association does not make separate gender identity determinations.

Billy Strickland, director of the Alaska School Activities Association, said that the policy has not garnered significant pushback from parents, coaches or athletes.

“There was a very small number of coaches that didn’t like the policy even though their school districts did, but it was very limited,” Strickland said. “We didn’t have any schools or districts protesting.”

Under the proposed Senate Bill 140, school sports teams would be required to be designated as for males, for females, or coeducational. Participation in female sports team would be based on “the participant’s biological sex.” A definition for biological sex is not provided in the bill. Students would be able to bring a private cause of action for injunctive relief and damages if they believed they has been deprived of an athletic opportunity guaranteed under the bill.

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, pointed to similar bills in other states that have been challenged in court and struck down. Begich said that Alaska’s legislative legal services have found the bill sponsored by Hughes to be unconstitutional.

The Senate Education committee postponed public testimony on the bill to a hearing scheduled March 12 “due to the volume of emailed testimony received,” said committee chair Sen. Roger Holland, R-Anchorage. A staff member for Holland said over 100 emails had already been received commenting on the bill.

Across the country, Republican-controlled states have passed similar bills even as civil rights and transgender advocacy groups have pushed back, citing a negative impact on the mental and physical health of transgender youth.

On Thursday, Iowa became the latest state to pass a bill limiting the participation of transgender athletes in school sports. Other states with similar laws on the books include South Dakota, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee and Texas. Enforcement of a 2020 Idaho law is on hold after a federal judge ruled it is likely to be found unconstitutional.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

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