When Laith Stevenson left her hometown of Ozark, Alabama, to attend college at Emory University, she was looking for an escape. The former high school track athlete wanted to leave the rural Southern town and embrace her queer identity.
Stevenson found refuge in track and field. She competed on the boys team, and identified as queer. She had her own struggles with homophobia on the team. Her teammates would chide her with homophobic slurs, but track was also an outlet. She felt exhilarated cheering for her teammates. She used running as a meditative way to cope with the troubles of her personal life, like losing her mother in middle school.
So, when she was at the Georgia state Capitol on Feb. 9, listening to lawmakers debate whether or not transgender athletes should be allowed to participate on sports teams that match their gender identity, Stevenson was disheartened.
“I think there’s a lot of ignorance around the topic, and that obviously infiltrates and makes its way into legislation that ends up being transphobic,” said Stevenson, now a transgender woman living in Atlanta.
Stevenson was on hand to hear arguments around the introduction of the Save Girls’ Sports Act. The bill would only allow students to participate on sports teams that match the sex on their birth certificate. This adds Georgia to a growing list of states, such as Florida, Texas, and Stevenson’s home state of Alabama, that are considering or have passed laws banning transgender students from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity.
Sen. Marty Harbin, the sponsor of the Georgia bill, says the legislation is about leveling the playing field for cisgender girls.
“It simply is not [fair] to force biological girls to compete against biological boys,” Harbin told his Senate colleagues in February, without acknowledging that the bill would ban both transgender girls and boys from participating in sports that match their gender identity. “It’s certainly not fair to expect young women to endure the immense social pressure against them if they speak up for themselves.”
The bill passed through the Senate and is being reviewed by the House Health and Human Services Committee. Gov. Brian Kemp has also signaled support for the legislation.
Stevenson, a published poet and dancer, worries that transgender youth who live in Atlanta won’t have the same opportunity and positive experiences that come with participating in team sports.
Other local transgender rights advocates agree.
“I feel like playing athletics, and especially team sports, gave me so many life skills that I still use to this day,” said Holiday Simmons, the founder and lead practitioner of Southern Soul Wellness, holistic mental health and spiritual wellness practice. Simmons, is Black former student athlete who is transmasculine. “In fact, it’s part of my therapy practice. When I credit the legacy of the schools of practice that I’ve trained under and that I’ve learned from, I include sports.”
Studies have shown transgender youth self-report heightened levels of anxiety and depression, often because of decreased social support and overall stigma about their bodies. Outcomes are even more stark for Black transgender youth. One survey from the Trevor Project in 2020 showed that 1 in 3 Black transgender youth have attempted suicide at some point in their life.
“The various things that have been named to be helpful to decrease these things are the things that are being taken away, like a safe, supportive school environment, a safe extracurricular activity,” Simmons said. “This could be devastating for anybody, but we’re talking about young people.”
Stevenson said she finds the name of the bill, the Save Girls’ Sports Act, contradictory if its passage could harm the health of young trans women.
“This is really going to be a detriment to trans girls’ mental health. I think, ironically, that can be a danger,” she said. “I think this is putting a lot of girls’ mental health and eventually, physical health, in harm’s way.”
When Harbin introduced the legislation, he didn’t use any Georgia examples to make his point. Instead, he cited the case of Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller. Yearwood and Miller were two Black transgender women track and field athletes in Connecticut, who were named in a lawsuit that questioned whether they had unfair advantage over their cisgender competitors.
In 2020, the families of three of Yearwood and Miller’s competitors sued the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, challenging its decision to allow transgender girls to compete. The suit was ultimately dismissed.
Elana Bildner, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut who represented Yearwood and Miller in the lawsuit, said it’s not uncommon to hear their names invoked in legislative attempts to bar transgender athletes from competing.
“Andraya and Terry are always ‘Example A’ when it comes to state legislatures trying to enact these harmful laws, and that’s because there is no ‘Example B,’” Bildner said. “Their names are constantly being brought up. They’ve had to deal with this in so many states when everyone is trying to fearmonger about transgender girls running.”
Dean Steed, the communications director at the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, a Black transgender-led organization seeking to end gender-based violence, says he wouldn’t be in favor of trans girls playing on a boys’ sports team.
“A transgender woman being asked to play on a men’s team … she would not be safe,” Steed said. “There is a lot of transgenderphobic and homophobic violence that is already happening at schools. A girl – and transgender girls are girls – being on a boys team could result in not just transgenderphobic violence, but also sexual violence. They could be both subjected to physical and verbal abuse. I would not advocate for that.”
The biological argument that transgender women have a competitive edge over cisgender women is one that lacks overwhelming science, some experts say.
Other studies have concluded that since “there is no direct or consistent research” on the matter, organizations should reconsider their policies if they ban transgender athletes from participating in sports how they see fit.
According to Simmons, legislation like this can have anti-Black sentiments. Black female athletes have faced scrutiny for their own natural levels of testosterone. “Black women have always been in question of the western standards for femininity,” he said.
Simmons cited the case of Caster Semenya, an intersex South African runner who went before the European Court of Human Rights to challenge a decision that she couldn’t compete because of her naturally high levels of testosterone. Semenya was appealing the rules laid out by World Athletics, which stated that she could compete but only after medically lowering her testosterone levels.
As for the Save Girls’ Sports Act, there are relatively few people the bill would directly affect in Georgia, said Carl Charles, a transgender male lawyer with Lambda Legal’s Decatur office.
Harbin himself could cite only one local example of a “boy” being on a team, and a girl said she didn’t want to play with him “because of the size.” It’s unclear if the “boy” the senator referred to is a transgender girl, but Harbin said he’s seen more of the “issue” in other states.
While the U.S. Census Bureau does not count the number of transgender people in the United States, a 2017 study from the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law estimates that 4,950 children between ages 13-17 identify as transgendergender in Georgia. Charles suspects that even fewer transgender youth in the state play sports.
“This is a really punitive and regressive solution to a nonexistent problem,” Charles said. “Most transgender young people are just trying to get through school. They’re just trying to get access to the mental health care and the physical health care that they need. They’re trying to come to terms with who they are in a world that is increasingly more hostile to resistance.”
Despite there likely being few athletes in the state, Charles said a bill like this becoming law can still cause harm to transgender youth in general.
“If you are in school and hearing about legislators who are saying, ‘This is a thing you can’t do, we don’t want you here,’ that has an impact,” he said. “Even if that’s not something you’re inclined to do, based on your interest, that’s going to give you pause as you go out into your school and look for ways to be involved in your community.”