When Wyoming lawmakers passed a bill this spring banning transgender girls from competing in middle and high school girls’ sports, Gov. Mark Gordon criticized the move as both draconian and discriminatory.
That characterization made it all the more interesting last week when Gordon joined eight other Republican governors in forcefully arguing against transgender women competing in women’s sports at the collegiate level.
The move prompted criticism from civil rights advocates, but the governor’s office maintains Gordon’s position on the issue hasn’t changed.
In the letter, Gordon and the other Republican governors said the current National Collegiate Athletics Association policy allows the organization to “avoid responsibility for ensuring the fairness of collegiate sports” and “therefore it must be changed.”
“Due to the lack of action at the federal level, governors have become the last line of defense for protecting fairness in women’s and girls’ sports,” Gordon, who let Wyoming’s law pass without his signature, wrote in the letter with the other governors. “Many of us have gotten legislation signed into law to ensure this fairness, but more can always be done.”
This is political grandstanding, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming fired back.
“Whatever Gov. Gordon and his letter’s cosigners might say, this isn’t about leveling the playing field for student-athletes or protecting fairness in women’s sports,” Libby Sarkin, deputy executive director for the ACLU of Wyoming, said in a statement. “If it were, these governors would be tackling the actual threats to women’s sports such as severe underfunding, lack of media coverage, sexist ideologies that suggest that women and girls are weak, and pay equity for coaches and players.”
When the bill to prohibit transgender girls from competing in middle and high school girls’ sports events came across his desk in March, Gordon called it “overly draconian” in a letter and said it was “discriminatory without attention to individual circumstances or mitigating factors, and pays little attention to fundamental principles of equality.”
For three pages, Gordon wrestled with a topic “that does not lend itself to a facile solution,” he said. Ultimately, the governor let the bill become law without his signature — effectively breaking the state’s 46-year tradition of defeating bills to restrict LGBTQ+ civil rights.
The letter to the NCAA takes a more definitive stance than the one Gordon took in March, casting transgender women as “men” and governors as “the last line of defense for protecting fairness in women’s and girls’ sports.”
“Policies that allow men and women to compete against one another validate an average male athlete stealing the recognition from a truly remarkable female athlete,” it states.
Despite the tonal shift, the governor’s office says the position in the NCAA letter aligns with his previous remarks, “where he expressed his support for the overall goal of fairness in competitive female sports.”
“It’s also important to note the key distinction between highly competitive college athletics, and K-12 sports in Wyoming, where the Governor believes in the benefits of participation in athletics for all students, including transgender individuals,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
Who and what’s in the letter
The governors’ letter is critical of the NCAA’s decision last year to set rules for participation sport-by-sport in alignment with the guidelines set by major national and world governing bodies for each activity. When the policy is fully implemented in August, the NCAA will require female transgender student-athletes to demonstrate testosterone levels that meet the sport-specific standards needed to compete in women’s divisions.
The NCAA’s website says its sport-by-sport approach aligns with the International Olympic Committee and “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.”
Leaving the rules up to national governing bodies, “allows the NCAA to avoid responsibility for ensuring the fairness of collegiate sports,” the governors’ letter responded.
“The NCAA has the opportunity to guarantee a fair environment for women’s sports. If you take this opportunity, it will expand the possibility for so many young women for years to come,” the letter states. “But if you continue the NCAA’s misguided policies, stories like Riley Gaines’ will only become more common.”
Gaines is a former collegiate swimmer for the University of Kentucky. After tying for fifth place in the 2022 NCAA 200-yard freestyle championship with Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, Gaines has risen to fame and become a vocal proponent of banning transgender women from women’s sports. The governors’ letter erroneously states that Gaines came in first place — she and Thomas tied for fifth, losing to four other women.
Last month, Gaines spoke at the University of Wyoming, sharing her experience as a NCAA athlete. She also spoke in support of the six Kappa Kappa Gamma sisters who sued their sorority earlier this year for accepting a transgender woman. The women are in the process of appealing after a U.S. District Court dismissed their case.
Gaines told the crowd in Laramie she sees her advocacy as “spiritual warfare.”
“It’s no longer a battle of right versus wrong or good versus bad. It really is moral versus evil,” Gaines said. “And I’ve looked this evil in the eyes and in the name of love and tolerance and acceptance and welcoming and whatever other word they want to use, it’s the most hateful, vengeful, violent movement.”
The letter also points to a 2010 study that found approximately a 10% difference between male and female athletes in the best performances and world records. Other research suggests it’s more complicated than that study alone.
Gordon’s signature on the NCAA letter was unexpected for some, including Sara Burlingame, a former state lawmaker and executive director of Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group.
“I was surprised that he signed it because it doesn’t seem reflective of any conversations that are happening at the University [of Wyoming] and our community colleges,” Burlingame said. “I don’t see them clamoring for more direction from the NCAA.”
The letter stood at odds with Gordon’s previous comments, Burlingame said. Instead, she said, she’d like to see the governor leading the conversation, “instead of lending his voice to a political letter that I don’t think reflects our values.”
Transgender issues are likely to come back into Gordon’s orbit in the upcoming legislative session. Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) announced at the Riley Gaines event that she plans to bring a bill to codify the definition of a woman as someone capable of producing eggs.