By Rachel Crumpler and Lucas Thomae
After a flurry of activity in April to introduce legislation in the House and the Senate banning transgender athletes from participating on teams that align with their gender identities, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act sat dormant in a committee for nearly two months.
Now, it’s resurfaced.
House Bill 574, which restricts transgender females from playing on female sports teams at the middle school, high school and college level, passed the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee on Wednesday after lawmakers and the public made comments in support of and against the bill.
Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Mooresville), a primary sponsor of the bill, has championed the legislation as “pro-woman.”
“The impetus of my journey with (the bill) was to protect women,” Sawyer said in Wednesday’s meeting. “And I do enjoy women’s sports, and that’s what all this is about.”
Sawyer explained that she started working on this issue after the North Carolina High School Athletic Association voted in 2019 to allow students to participate on teams that align with their gender identity. In 2021, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to pass restrictive legislation; Speaker Tim Moore ultimately dismissed the bill as a solution in search of a problem, saying transgender athletes competing in North Carolina wasn’t an issue.
“A wise legislature does not go out looking for social issues to tap,” Moore told the News & Observer at the time.
But lawmakers are trying again this session. Supporters argue that the legislation is needed to protect female athletes across the state and ensure a level playing field when it comes to school-sponsored athletics. The bill follows a national trend of anti-trans legislation being introduced at the federal level and in Republican-led state legislatures this year.
People opposed to the legislation say it unnecessarily targets transgender youth, who are already particularly vulnerable.
“The LGBTQ community is not the enemy,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director at Equality NC. “Little girls that want to play sports are not the enemy, and they are not causing disruption in school spaces.”
In April, the Senate and House each introduced a version of the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. The Senate restricted transgender participation in middle school and high school athletics. The House went further, also applying the restrictions to the college level, including intramural athletics.
Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Franklin), a primary sponsor of a companion bill that was filed in the state Senate, introduced an amendment to the House bill that he said sponsors agreed would align the differences.
The amendment removed restrictions that would have prevented females from playing on male sports teams.
“We found many instances where females, for example, were kickers on football teams, and we have no desire to restrict females from participating in sports such as that,” Corbin said.
Another change removed language that would have banned transgender women from competing in intramural sports at colleges, universities and community colleges across the state. Corbin explained that the language was amended because intramural sports are a “recreational” activity and there are no scholarships involved.
The amendment signals that the House and Senate have reached a consensus on the subject, clearing its way to passage. If passed, the legislation will go into effect for the 2023-24 school year.
Sean Radek, a 17-year-old transgender student, told NC Health News in May that passage of the bill would be devastating. He started swimming at the age of 4 and loved it. After he came out as trans at age 11, he was still put on the female team — even after he started hormones.
“In doing that, it basically outed me as trans to my entire swim team,” Radek said. “‘There’s this guy on a girl’s team. Why is he there? Let’s interrogate him about this.’ With this (legislation) being in place, I think it’s just going to further out people being trans, and it’s really unfair.”
Staying on a team that didn’t align with Radek’s gender identity was “too much,” he said. Radek decided to stop participating in the sport he loves, though he said it’s not a choice he or other trans kids should be forced to make.
It’s not clear how many transgender athletes will be affected, though rough estimates and anecdotal evidence suggest a few dozen at most across North Carolina.
Since 2019, when the NC High School Athletic Association adopted a policy to allow transgender athletes to play on teams that align with their gender identities, Commissioner Que Tucker previously told NC Health News only 18 requests have been filed — and only two of the requests have been from trans females.
In the post-secondary space, the National Collegiate Athletics Association does not track the number of transgender student-athletes competing. Researcher Joanna Harper told Newsweek in April that she believes there are fewer than 100 trans women athletes competing in college nationwide. Harper has worked as an adviser to the International Olympic Committee on issues around gender and sport.
Democrats in the legislature argue that athletic governing bodies already have effective policies in place to address transgender participation.
Four audience members gave public comment at Wednesday’s Senate education committee meeting — one in opposition to the bill and three in support of it.
One of those supporters was Sylvia Hatchell, the former UNC Chapel Hill women’s basketball coach who resigned in 2019 after accusations of misconduct within the program. Hatchell has spoken several times in support of the bill at the legislature and reiterated her stance that transgender athletes should not be allowed to play collegiate sports.
“I recruited and gave scholarships to probably three or four hundred females during my career,” Hatchell told the committee. “But you know, if transgenders are allowed to play, they will take scholarships away from female athletes. It’s just plain and simple because they’re going to be better.”
Hatchell told NC Health News that during her career she never coached or competed against an openly transgender athlete. No transgender college athletes based in North Carolina have spoken publicly about the bill at the legislature.
The debate over transgender sports participation at the middle and high school levels in North Carolina heated up after a sports injury last fall that lawmakers are citing as an example of why rules need to change to protect athletes’ safety.
Payton McNabb, a former student at Hiwassee Dam High School, said she was injured last fall during her senior year after being hit in the face by a volleyball that she said was spiked by a transgender athlete. McNabb said that she lost consciousness and experienced symptoms from her head injury for months afterward.
“I’m here for every biological female athlete behind me — my little sister, my cousins, my teammates,” McNabb told legislators in April. “Allowing biological males to compete against biological females is dangerous. I may be the first to come before you with an injury. But if this doesn’t pass, I won’t be the last.”
Her testimony was shared again on Wednesday by Sebastian King, who lobbies for the North Carolina Values Coalition to emphasize the need for the legislation.
Kyle Warren-Love, a 28-year-old transgender man from Caswell County, was the only audience member to speak against the bill. He came out as lesbian at 12 years old and transitioned at age 20.
“This bill only creates a scenario where trans children feel unsafe and are not able to enjoy and succeed in school,” Warren-Love told legislators.
Warren-Love played middle school soccer and tennis as an out lesbian and said he felt “very included” by his teammates and coaches. Warren-Love and fellow advocates say that sports are an important arena for LGBTQ youth to develop social skills and connect with peers.
“On the team, it didn’t matter that I was an out LGBTQ person,” Warren-Love told NC Health News. “It only mattered that we were there to play the game, enjoy each other’s company and work together as a team.”
The bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate rules committee at 9 a.m. on Thursday.