This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
Note: This story was updated with new information at 4:40 p.m. Wednesday March 1. -Ed.
A bill that bans transgender girls from playing women’s high school sports just barely made it onto the House floor by the deadline Monday, where representatives have passed it on first and second reading.
Before reaching the floor, Senate File 133 – Student eligibility in interscholastic sports needed to clear the House Appropriations Committee, which it did on a 4-3 vote.
The bill sponsor and other lawmakers who spoke in favor of it said it is meant to address three things: fairness, equity and safety. “This bill requires that if an athlete is born male at birth, they are banned from competing against biological females. This is the fairness issue,” Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) said in the House Education Committee last week.
But opponents — including a number of students who testified — say it is the opposite of fair.
“This bill reinforces the idea that the inclusion of trans women is harmful to cisgender women, and this couldn’t be any farther from the truth,” Santi Murillo, a trans woman athlete who went to the University of Wyoming, told the House education committee the week prior. “I also believe that this bill invites gender policing and subjects any woman to being labeled as ‘too masculine’ or ‘too good at her sport’ to count as a real woman.”
Concern about strong athletes being singled out and forced to prove they are female, regardless of whether they are trans, has been a recurring theme throughout public testimony as the bill moved through the Senate and now the House.
One young student who spoke up in the education committee said kids who are naturally taller or stronger than their peers aren’t scrutinized in the same way as trans athletes. Another noted that playing sports is inherently dangerous, and inclusion of trans athletes doesn’t change that.
Trans kids are also at high risk for suicide and depression, something the Wyoming Education Association took note of.
“On one hand we’re talking about participation in athletics, on the other hand we’re talking about the mental well-being of a very targeted and a very at-risk student population,” said Tate Mullen with the association.
Mental health concerns were echoed Monday in the House Appropriations Committee.
“Across our caseloads, families with transgender children hearing the debate about this topic, and other bills like it, are in crisis,” Social worker Cheyenne Syvertson said. “Most of those children are actively suicidal and on suicide watch. These families are putting their houses on the market and considering leaving the state they love.”
But Schuler argued the focus should be on cisgender female athletes.
“Regardless of how anyone tries to frame the question of the transgender athlete … and their potential for a lost opportunity and their mental well-being,” Schuler said in the education committee, “what we really need to do is think about the biological females, and put them at the forefront of the equation.”
Kids’ testimonies against the bill didn’t fall on deaf ears, though, and Rep. Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper) said they influenced his decision. On the House floor, he made an impassioned speech about why the Legislature should leave decisions up to schools — which currently have case-by-case purview over the matters.
“This bill is a broad brush against an entire class of citizen[s], banning a group,” he said. “It’s ironic that a bill about fairness is, on its face, unfair in its targeting of a particular group of Wyoming kids, and completely ignoring all the other ways unfairness is acted out in the arena of sports. So I will be a no vote today.
“It’s a lonely road, but certainly not as lonely as one traveled by the kids being targeted as they follow these proceedings and seek protection of their rights to process and to be seen as individuals, just like everyone else.”
Others, however, said they see a need for more uniformity across the state.
“I’m not going to pretend that there are no potentially negative effects on transgender athletes and their well-being,” said Rep. Martha Lawley (R-Worland). “But I am saying that there are other options available to address those issues that don’t require the dismantling of women-only sports and all the progress that women have gained over the last 50 years in Title IX.”
Lawley noted the bill gives school districts the ability to create other other avenues for trans kids to play sports, but House Minority Floor Leader Mike Yin (D-Jackson) was concerned those flexibilities would be hard to create for just trans athletes.
“How many people is this bill going to affect? How many kids are we talking about here?” he said. “Especially when we’re talking about maybe making a new lane for them; how many kids do you need to make a sports league and is it less than double digits?”
To the courtroom
There are also concerns about the bill’s constitutionality. Similar laws across the country have faced lawsuits alleging discrimination, and some in Wyoming testified that could lead to a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the education committee, an amendment would have added $1 million for possible court costs, though that was later stripped.
“I don’t think that there’s any question that this bill will be litigated,” Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said on the House floor Monday. “But whatever those damages are, we’ll know it when we know it. And so to us, it just made more sense to take this appropriation out with the understanding that we may very well be responsible for $1 million plus or $2 million or $3 million in attorneys fees and costs in potential litigation.”
One of the most regularly cited arguments against the legislation is that it’s not necessary because there is already a process in place in Wyoming to handle concerns over equality and trans athletes in school sports.
That process starts at the school level, but can be appealed up to the Wyoming High School Activities Association. In the nearly 10 years that process has been in place, there have been no appeals, according to the association.
“I hope you will leave this to be determined locally amongst teachers and people who know and love their children and the children of this state,” Reverend Elizabeth Mount, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, said in the education committee.
Both sides of this issue have also referenced the federal civil rights law Title IX, which states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
However, while several lawmakers interpret this as a protection for cisgender women athletes specifically, others see it as offering broader safeguards.
“Title IX was created to protect our females in school sports,” said Rep. Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton). “If states do not uphold Title IX, they’ll lose certain federal funds.”
While Title IX is well known for its impact on sports, the 1972 law was designed to cover more than just female athletics.
“Title IX isn’t about women,” said Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) on the House floor. “Title IX is about protecting students against discrimination based on sex. There’s a difference.”
The 50-year-old legislation is currently undergoing an amendment process as the Biden administration seeks to expand its scope, including gender identity and sexual orientation.
Senate File 133 passed the House Wednesday. It now goes to the governor for his consideration.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.