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Iowa House votes to ban transgender girls from girls’ sports

The sun reflects off the golden dome of the Iowa Statehouse on a sunny winter day.
Madeleine King
IPR file photo
House Republicans said transgender girls should be ineligible to play against other girls because they may hold a physical advantage, but Democrats said there have been no significant issues with unfair competition in Iowa.

The Iowa House has passed a bill (HF 2416) that would allow only people who are born female to play girls’ or women’s sports. Transgender girls would have to compete with boys.

The proposal was amended to include both public and private K-12 schools. It also covers community colleges, and public and private colleges and universities that are members of the NCAA and NAIA.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, said men have athletic advantages over women that would give transgender women a competitive advantage. The ban, he said, would create a level playing field by ensuring that athletes who are female at birth don’t lose places on teams to transgender girls and women.

“No one is questioning (girls’) competitiveness and their drive,” Wheeler said. “There is a major difference in the physiological make up of males and females. They’re at a huge disadvantage especially even in wrestling when it comes to competing.”

Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, said there was “no hint” of the competitiveness problem Wheeler and other Republicans claim exists.

“Girls’ sports don’t need to be rescued or saved,” Staed said. “This attempt is to force transgender girls to play on the boys’ team and it is an unconscionable attack on already marginalized children.”

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said the proposal would force schools to treat transgender students differently while playing sports than in the classroom.

“When school officials recognize that a transgender girl is a girl during the day but then treat her as if she’s a boy when practice starts it is hurtful to the student and it disrupts the school’s policy of treating kids fairly.”

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union currently allows transgender girls to compete if they identify as female both at school, socially and at home, but Rep. Wheeler said the organization is “looking for guidance” from the legislature.

The bill passed 55-39 on party lines in the Republican-controlled House. A similar bill is also up for debate in the Senate (SF 2342), which includes public universities overseen by the Iowa Board of Regents but not other private colleges.

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, proposed an amendment that would have taken the House proposal even farther, exposing school districts to lawsuits even for affirming a student’s transgender identity.

Shipley compared gender dysphoria, a condition distinct from identifying as transgender, to cancer and suggested schools should respond by recognizing only a student’s sex at birth.

“A sarcoma would be treated with aggressive therapies to remove or heal the cancerous growth and that same medical framework should be applied to the epidemic of identity disorders affecting our children,” Shipley said, adding that the lawmakers should not be “bending the world to conform to mental illness of others.”

Shipley’s amendment failed, and his comparison was rebuked by Democrats.

“Kids who are transgender do not equate to kids with cancer,” Konfrst said. “Kids who are transgender do not have a mental illness. Kids who are transgender are kids.”

An executive order issued by President Joe Biden last year stated that transgender students are protected under federal anti-discrimination laws and should not be denied access to school sports.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said the House bill would invite a legal challenge if it is passed into law because instead of targeting cases of potentially unfair competition it encompasses all transgender girl athletes, even those who are not competitive in their sports.

“Not because she poses any kind of a risk of an unfair advantage to any girl but because she’s a trans girl. That is the definition of illegal discrimination,” Wolfe said. “The vast majority of these kids, if they do go out for a team sport, they’ve got no more advantage than anyone else.”

Wheeler responded that he believes no girl should be allowed to lose a place on their school or college team.

“Even if it’s one case. Even if it’s a middle school bench slot,” Wheeler said. “I don’t care what it is. You’re displacing a biological girl in her own division and in her own sport. I don’t care if they are the best of the best or the worst of the worst, there are advantages that are significant.”

At least 10 states have put laws in place limiting the participation of transgender women and girls in sports since 2020. The laws in Idaho, West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee are part of ongoing court challenges.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa