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State Senate committee approves bill to bar trans student-athletes from girls teams

the starting line of a track at a Durham County public school.
Brian Batista
The starting line of a track at a Durham County public school.

The Senate education committee has approved a bill that would bar transgender girls from participating in girls middle school and high school sports teams.

The committee also passed an amendment that would continue to allow girls to play on boys teams, but not for a student who is born a biological male to play on a girls team. Republican Senator Vickie Sawyer sponsored the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act and took the podium to answer committee members’ questions and defend the amendment.

“When a woman walks onto the field and she plays against other women she doesn't expect to be outnumbered or outgunned by someone who's a biological man,” Sawyer said.

“If she wants to play golf on a men's team, or play baseball on a baseball team — like I did — or play softball on a men's team — like I have — then she understands the risks there,” Sawyer said. “But if a biological man wants to walk on to an all-women's team, then that is not allowed.”

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association enacted a gender identity policy in 2019 that allows schools to request for a trans student to be able to play on a team consistent with their gender identity. Senators on both sides of the issue said they believe about 15 trans student-athletes have played on teams under this policy.

Democratic Senator Natasha Marcus questioned why the proposed bill is needed, and whether the committee’s time would be better spent on other education issues.

“What we're talking about is the very small number of young people here in North Carolina who are really struggling with their identity, who are trying to find their path in life, protect their mental health, their physical health, who want to join a team,” Marcus said.

“For me, 15 is too many,” Sawyer responded. “And for me, this committee's time is well deserved on this very important bill. So we're just not going to agree.”

Republican State Superintendent Catherine Truitt also spoke in favor of the bill.

“If we are truly to maintain a level playing field in women's sports, biological sex must supersede gender preference,” Truitt said. “There are inherent and intrinsic biological differences between men and women — and boys and girls — that impact athletic performance. These differences can result in variations across strength, speed, and endurance.”

Democratic Senator Jay Chaudhuri asked whether bill sponsors had consulted with members of the business community about whether the bill might affect the state’s efforts to recruit and retain companies, to which Sawyer responded, “I appreciate the political play you're having here.”

The politics of the bill attracted many speakers during the public comment period.

“There are divisions, age brackets and weight classes for a reason,” said Sharon Sullivan with the socially conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council, who spoke in favor of the legislation. “College sports are for college athletes, professional sports for pro athletes and female sports should be for female athletes.”

Cat Salemi, a licensed clinical mental health counselor from Durham, spoke against the bill. Salemi identifies as nonbinary and said that most of their clients are trans or nonbinary. Salemi said they believe the intent of the bill is not to protect or support women and girls, but instead to discriminate against trans girls and teens.

“Laws like this send a clear message to trans people that we are not accepted, not wanted and not welcome,” Salemi said.

The bill has cleared its first hurdle in the Senate and will face other votes. If passed, it would still need approval in the House.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org