Midwest lawmakers have been targeting transgender athletes. Here's where the law stands now
State legislatures around the country have been trying to prevent transgender girls and women from competing with their peers. How that's playing out in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska depends on politics and people.
Daniel Wheeler remembers how it felt to don a girl’s suit to compete as a swimmer in high school. Waiting to dive into the pool, the eyes of onlookers upon him, was excruciating.
"It hurt my mental health so badly,” Wheeler said. “Like there were times, when, even though I love to swim, I didn't want to get into the water."
Today Wheeler, 21, wears the correct suit when he swims for the men’s team at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Assigned a girl at birth, Wheeler came out as a transgender man in college.
“It was a little scary. I didn't know if I would be accepted. I didn't know, like, if I was going to get beaten down and told I couldn't swim,” he said. “But I thought I knew what was best for me, and I did.”
Wheeler underwent top surgery to remove his breasts in August 2021, after his sophomore year.
Then he did what no other student athlete at Nebraska Wesleyan had done before: He left the women's squad and joined the men's. His life changed.
"I love it. I finally feel like I'm wearing the right type of suit for me,” Wheeler said. “I finally feel like I'm comfortable, because that’s what we wear for hours upon hours a day. We are very, very exposed to the world. People see our bodies.”
Wheeler competes for a private university that supported his transition, and he lives in Nebraska – a red state – which does not have state laws banning transgender youth participation in sports.
While transgender male athletes like Wheeler are not the focus of lawmakers who support these laws, watching attempts in neighboring states to legislate what some term "gender participation" hurts.
“Being trans has benefited my mental health,” Wheeler said. “Also being a swimmer has benefited my mental health. And they’re taking away those opportunities, especially for people who are so young. It’s not like we're hurting anyone by doing this.”
Around the country, lawmakers who support gender participation legislation say high school and college transgender athletes are, in fact, hurting others. They say banning transgender girls and women from competing in high school and college protects non-trans female athletes from advantages in athletic prowess that competitors transitioning from male to female may have.
Opponents of such measures call them discriminatory and point to state high school athletic associations and the NCAA, which already have created guidelines and protocols for gender participation.
From the perspective of Nebraska Wesleyan officials, supporting and accommodating Wheeler's transition was simply the right thing to do.
“We want to do everything that we can to support our students to build that sense of belonging to make sure that our students are welcome,” said Dr. Sarah Kelen, vice president for student life at Nebraska Wesleyan. “Diversity is one of our core values, and so there was nothing to decide.”
Nebraska Wesleyan, an NCAA Division III school, followed NCAA guidance as Wheeler moved from the women's to the men's swim team.
"We have a student who wants to participate in athletics. That student is eligible to participate in athletics, and we want to support that student,” Kelen said. “We really value belonging and for our students to feel that they belong, regardless of the identities that they bring to us.”
“I have seen a lot of the laws and a bunch of it is just fear of what could come; it's not what actually exists. Because if they looked at what actually exists, this is people wanting to be themselves."Daniel Wheeler, Nebraska Wesleyan University student athlete
Wheeler took the process as an opportunity to educate fellow students and teammates.
“I've actually had a chance to have a lot of in depth conversations with a few of them,” Wheeler said. “Before they knew me they didn't accept trans athletes, they didn't want to swim with trans athletes. But I’ve been able to have conversations with them. Now they’re like, ‘You want to swim. I am 100 percent behind you. I’m going to support you.’”
As for high school athletes, the Nebraska School Activities Association established a gender participation policy in 2016. It does not provide guidance for transgender boys, but lays out criteria for transgender girls. For example, it includes testimony from family members and teachers attesting that athletes are living as transgender as well as verification from a medical professional and one year of hormone therapy.
'An easy target' in Iowa
Transgender women and girls in Iowa do not have the opportunity play for the sports teams that match their gender identities. In March, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a law that bans them from doing so. It applies to public and private K-12 schools and community colleges as well as colleges and universities affiliated with the NCAA and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Joining Reynolds in the Iowa capitol rotunda on the day of the bill’s signing was Ainsley Erzen, an Iowa high school track star and an outspoken proponent of banning transgender girls from girls' sports.
"The message that women are so much more than a hormone level, that the things girls love are worth protecting and their hard work and dedication is recognized and their dreams can become a reality," Erzen said.
In its handbook about inclusion of transgender student athletes, the NCAA quotes a leading physician, who refutes the notion of competitive advantage for trans girls and women:
“Transgender student-athletes fall within the spectrum of physical traits found in athletes of their transitioned gender, allowing them to compete fairly and equitably,” said Dr. Nick Gorton, a physician who treats transgender men and women.
Signing the bill, Reynolds echoed arguments that female transgender athletes present an unfair advantage in competition:
"It worries me that this bill is needed at all. It's hard to imagine how anyone who cares about the rights of women and girls could support anything less," said Reynolds. "No amount of talent, training or effort on their part can make up for the natural, physical advantages males have over females."
“Once we recognize that transgender young people are part of school communities across the United States, educational leaders have a responsibility to ensure that these students have access to equal opportunities in all academic and extracurricular activities in a safe and respectful school environment.”NCAA
Damian Thompson of Iowa Safe Schools, a statewide anti-bullying organization, agrees that there’s no need for the ban – for different reasons. For Thomas and other LGBTQ advocates in Iowa, it’s a law seeking to regulate a non-existent problem.
“The way the rhetoric is coming at us,” he said. “It makes it sound like this is this major problem that's sweeping the land. We as an organization have never heard of a complaint from a cis gender athlete, a family member or a coach accusing a transgender athlete of being unfair or having some sort of advantage in the state of Iowa.”
According to data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, about 150,000 youth – ages 13 to 17 – identify as transgender across the country. That’s less than one percent of the population.
"This is a solution entirely in search of a problem," Thompson said.
Thompson said transgender students have become an easy target for lawmakers seeking to please voters with conservative views about the LGBTQ community.
“They are metaphorical punching bags for folks at the statehouse,” Thompson said. “These are real students that just want to play. They want to be included. They want to be with their friends. And we're using this issue as an electioneering talking point.”
The mental health impact of Iowa students waking up to a ban on the way transgender athletes compete in sports is immeasurable, Thompson said. And there are other repercussions that proponents may not have considered, he said.
“These are economic issues,” Thompson. “Whether it's attracting students to our state or trying to keep our students here. With over 10,000 students that we work with every year, probably 90 percent of them don't feel safe in Iowa. They want to go out of state for college and work, and they don't plan on returning. This is a serious workforce issue.”
For now, Iowa Safe Schools is focusing on providing support and resources for young transgender Iowans reeling from the effects of the law. After all, Thompson said, one does not have to be an athlete or a transgender female to feel the impact.
“It is absolutely crushing both for students and parents alike,” he said.
The case in Kansas
Toward the tail end of the 2022 legislative session in Kansas this spring, Republican senators in support of Senate Bill 160 could not muster enough votes to overcome Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's veto. The measure would have banned transgender girls and women from competing on girls’ and women’s sports teams.
Conservative lawmakers in Kansas have been trying to pass similar legislation since 2020. Kelly, remarking on her veto, said:
“It's not that there are more trans people, but as the world's become more accepting more trans people are willing to live their lives out loud.”Rep. Stephanie Byers, Kansas House of Representatives
“Both Republican and Democratic governors have joined me in vetoing similar divisive bills for the same reasons: it’s harmful to students and their families and it’s bad for business."
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, summed up his support of the measure in a letter to the Senate Education Committee:
“From the differences in height and weight, to the differences in muscle mass, cardiac output, and oxygen carrying capacity (to name just a few), males have a competitive advantage over females that precludes fair competition in sports," wrote Steffen, who is also a physician.
But, the notion of competitive advantage fueled by testosterone is false, according to a range of scientific and medical experts.
Quoted in Scientific American, Katrina Karkazis, a Yale expert on testosterone and bioethics, said: “Studies of testosterone levels in athletes do not show any clear, consistent relationship between testosterone and athletic performance. Sometimes testosterone is associated with better performance, but other studies show weak links or no links. And yet others show testosterone is associated with worse performance.”
Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat, said the number of young Kansas athletes seeking to transition from male to female in her state is miniscule: 1 in 37,000.
Byers, the first transgender legislator to serve in Kansas, said the rise of laws and proposals banning transgender youth sports participation is a feature of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that is running out of issues to target.
“As a nation we’ve become more accepting,” Byers said. “It's as if this negative energy has to have somewhere to go and so they've decided that the trans community, especially trans youth, are who they want to push and pick on.”
For now, rules about how high school athletes who are transgender compete in sports remain under the purview of the Kansas State High School Activities Association. The KSHSAA’s “Transgender Policy,” created in 2015, applies to transgender girls and boys. As in Nebraska, Kansas will rely on NCAA rules to govern the matter at the collegiate level.
Measures in Missouri
Last spring, as the ban on transgender girls and women competing on female sports teams met its demise in Kansas, three similar measures remained alive and well in neighboring Missouri.
Proponents, mostly Republicans, pointed to familiar reasons for their support: Disputed assertions about how biology affects transgender men and women.
“It’s about equal opportunity, because of the physiological differences.”Rep. Mike Haffner, Missouri House of Representatives
Democratic lawmakers argued the Missouri State High School Activities Association already has a policy that outlines requirements for transgender youths’ participation in sports. As in Kansas, the policy includes provisions for transgender girls and boys.
By the end of the legislative session, however, the Missouri Senate opted not to take up the banning of transgender girls and women from female sports teams, and the matter rests for now.
Advocates for transgender youth in Missouri celebrated. Rabbi Daniel Bogard, who has testified in opposition to banning efforts about a dozen times, tweeted:
“WE DID IT!!!! It starts all over again in 8 months, but we're sure gonna celebrate today.”
Bogard, a rabbi at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, began advocating for transgender youth when he served as a rabbi in Cincinnati in 2017. Two years later, when his own child came out as a transgender boy at age seven, his crusade took on a personal dimension.
“In retrospect, we can see our own internalized transphobia processing,” Bogard said. “In the moment he finally got that boy’s haircut he looked at us, and he looked in the mirror and, he goes, ‘Oh, I'm a boy now.’ And then we were all in.”
Bogard’s son picked a new name for himself, and his extended family and school community rallied around him in acceptance. Bogard said he and his wife realized they would have to fight to protect their family from the state of Missouri. So, he began to drive to the state capitol in Jefferson City to speak up for transgender youth.
“I had this sense that immediately I needed to protect my kid from his government,” Bogard said.
He was dismayed by many of the committee hearings where he testified, including one that took place on Ash Wednesday, when many Catholics receive ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead.
“It was awful,” Bogard said. “The people in that room who were being so awful to us and bullying our children were all sitting there with this very public sign of their religiosity,” Bogard said. “I had just driven two hours because I needed to defend my kid. It was so disrespectful.”
During the 2022 legislative session, Bogard said he and his wife regularly discussed leaving the state of Missouri if a gender participation measure became law.
“We were having conversations about, if they pass this, ‘Where do we flee and how far is far enough? And can we go to Illinois and can we keep our jobs?’”
Wheeler, the Nebraska Wesleyan swimmer, had planned to delay his full transition until after graduation, but continuing to live and compete as a woman was difficult.
“I didn't want to wait anymore. It was hurting my mental health,” Wheeler said. And that's why I made the decision to transition.”
The impact of not transitioning because of the law worries Wheeler when he thinks about teen and young adult transgender athletes.
“What they’re telling people is, ‘You can be trans or an athlete, but you cannot be both,’” Wheeler said. “And for some people, they can't choose or it's extremely hard to choose.”
Life is better post-transition, he said, but a bit complicated. Wheeler uses women’s locker rooms and stays with the women when the Nebraska Wesleyan team competes on the road. That’s his decision; he simply feels more comfortable with them for now.
After healing from his top surgery, Wheeler got back into the pool in October 2021, swimming the butterfly and freestyle strokes he loves.
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.
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