Phantoms in the Fieldhouse

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Five years ago, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted House Bill 2, a piece of legislation that weakened municipal powers and, most infamously, prohibited transgender individuals from using public restrooms corresponding with their gender identity. The law, often called the “Bathroom Bill”, earned North Carolina the scorn and ridicule of people all over the country and world and ended up costing the state several high-profile events, many in the collegiate and professional sports fields. The pushback was enough that, the following year, the state’s newly elected governor helped withdraw that most criticized aspect of the law. In March of 2021, almost exactly four years after the Cooper administration’s success at modifying the “Bathroom Bill”, the still Republican dominated General Assembly decided to again dedicate valuable session time to developing a new way to target transgender North Carolinians; this time it was young people involved in athletics.

The transparently alarmist “Save Women’s Sports Act”, officially House Bill 358, has been crafted using much of the same fearmongering language found in its predecessor. This time, instead of claiming to protect vulnerable women and girls from predatory men masquerading as as transgender females, the effort is said to provide a ‘level playing field’ so that vulnerable young women and girls are protected from male athletes calling themselves transgender females to get a competitive advantage. As with House Bill 2, the usual conservative rallying cries of ‘limited government’ and individual responsibility seem to have been muted in the rush to produce statute again focusing upon transgender citizens. Despite calling for action to “save” female intermural sports from testosterone pumping pretenders, the bill’s sponsors have provided exactly zero evidence that any such infiltration has occurred or is even likely to occur. As with its ideological precursor, the most generous interpretation of House Bill 358 is that it’s a rather blunt solution in search of a problem. A more critical reading is that this is yet another attempt by Republican lawmakers in the state to open up North Carolina as a new front in their national party’s newest iteration of the phony culture wars.

. . . the bill’s sponsors have provided exactly zero evidence that any such infiltration has occurred. . .

What makes the latter view more likely is that the bill’s supporters have failed to conduct even the most basic research into whether this alleged issue is, indeed an issue. The bill’s language, in its current form, makes a point of citing medical and legal sources as if to reinforce the biological differences males and females while making a dubious argument women’s sports are under attack by cisgender males joining teams to better excel. There are few serious physicians or legal minds that would claim there are no physiological, hormonal or psychological differences between the sexes, but that fact does not erase that many people who really are transgender don’t have the typical biochemical makeup of their cisgender peers. In other words, being born with a penis does not automatically imbue the ability to “generate higher speed and power during physical activity”. Additionally, the the case of athletics, there is more at work than just natural physical strength — conditioning, strategy, opportunity, ambition and plain dumb luck all play major parts in the success or failure of most competitive sports. Perhaps is a team were made up predominately or entirely of transgender women or girls there would be a significant advantage, but the suspicion is that cases of transgender girls joining cisgender girls’ teams would be uncommon and, even if more common than this writer imagines, certainly would not be widespread enough of a concern to warrant specific legislation.

Although the title of the bill suggests its goal is to preserve fairness in women’s sports, much of the bill’s content is actually devoted to ensuring individuals and institutions that block transgender females from cisgender athletics are protected from organizational sanctions or other consequences. Presumably, this is designed to offer some recourse to school administrators, teachers or even students that deny access to so-called “biological male” participants. Interestingly, the bill does nothing to elucidate how “biological male” students would be identified so that they could be prevented from joining a team. It places the onus of enforcement on institutions by implicitly supporting invasive medical examinations (physical and/or genetic) and potentially nurturing a network of informants among trans-hostile staff or peers. Furthermore, there are no provisions to address the very real dangers transgender females might face if forced to compete on exclusively cisgender male teams. The goal of this bill, it seems clear, is not to maintain a ‘level playing field’ for female athletes; if that were true, why can the bill’s proponents offer no examples of the playing field being tilted and why have they admitted to not conferring with a single transgender youth who would be directly impacted by this proposed legislation?

The political right has a lengthy history of focusing on ‘wedge issues’ that appeal to a narrow audience, usually the Republican base and those on the more extreme edge of the political spectrum. There is a great deal of power and money available by bowing to these forces as the pressure groups most active on these topics are quick to offer votes and resources to politicians willing to adopt their pitches. The so-called culture wars have also played a role in this disgraceful exercise. As the American public has faced changing norms and challenges to long-held paradigms, the conservative movement, rather than adopt new perspectives and policy positions, has resorted to bold and unapologetic attacks on marginalized citizens in the name of ‘traditional values’ and as a response to an out of control ‘liberal agenda’. Instead of engaging with transgender people and addressing the actual problems of discrimination, bullying, violence and a general lack of public support, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and many other states have set out to further marginalize these individuals and further exclude them from activities that would likely help them become fully realized and confident adults. Instead of evolving to meet the realities of the current social milieu, in typical Republican fashion, many are seeing phantoms were none exist and have decided to ‘do something’ about a hollow fear they themselves cannot justify.

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