Texas Senate approves limits on transgender student athletes

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

Split irrevocably along party lines, the Texas Senate on Thursday approved legislation banning transgender student athletes from competing in sports within their gender identity.

All 18 Republicans voted for Senate Bill 29, which would require athletes in Texas public high schools and grade schools to compete in sports based on the "biological sex" listed on their original birth certificate. Under that definition, biological boys would be banned from competing in girls sports, although girls could compete in boys sports if a comparable female sport was not available.

"This is about protecting female athletes and recognizing their accomplishments within their biological peer group," said Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, author of the bill.

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Amended birth certificates, which can be issued to reflect gender changes for transgender people, would no longer be accepted by the University Interscholastic League, which oversees extracurricular athletic events.

All Democrats voted against SB 29, saying during two days of floor debate that the bill needlessly singles out transgender students, many of whom struggle with depression and suicide, to tackle a nonexistent problem.

"You demonize a group of students unnecessarily," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. 

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"Have you heard from a school official, a coach, who says, man we got a problem on our hands? You haven't," Whitmire said. "Do you think you're just overly concerned or are taking a more extreme position than necessary with some major, perhaps unintended consequences?"

Whitmire said transgender Texans deserve respect: "All they want, senator, is to be left alone, to raise their families, to be equal."

But Perry said biological boys can have physical advantages that would make it unfair to compete against biological girls, and he predicted that "more and more" transgender athletes will try to compete in girls sports across Texas.

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"I have the same respect for those women that have done what they needed to do to be at the top of their game, not to have a transgendered, biological male come in and stealing all those accolades from them," Perry said.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, spoke in favor of Perry's bill, saying her life was shaped by her sporting accomplishments as a child playing girls softball and a collegiate golfer. Female athletes should not be denied similar opportunities to compete on a level playing field, she said.

"I believe that this is the women's rights issue of our time," Kolkhorst said. "I really do."

But Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. said transgender children "know they are not what their birth certificate says."

"That's why we're creating a problem that we don't need to," he said. "I think this concern for the student athlete needs to be for the whole student as well."

SB 29 next goes to the Texas House, which has yet to take action on a similar bill.

The party-line fight was reminiscent of the 2017 battle over efforts to prohibit transgender-friendly bathroom and locker room policies, sparking large protests on both sides of the issue and two all-night committee hearings.

The Senate, led by a staunch conservative in Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and populated by like-minded Republicans, approved bathroom bills in the regular and special sessions, only to watch the effort die both times in the House.

The outcome exacerbated a rift between Patrick and then-House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican who proclaimed the bills a mistaken and mean-spirited effort that jeopardized the state's economy.

Then, as now, corporations urged defeat of bills targeting transgender people, and then, as now, conservative Christian and Republican supporters said principles outweighed the potential economic impact.

Most recently, the NCAA warned lawmakers in Texas and about 30 other states that passing bills targeting transgender sports participation could result in the loss of college championships — events that provide multimillion-dollar economic boosts. 

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville was the only Democrat to support the bathroom bills in 2017, telling the Senate during Wednesday's debate that he is still vilified in some quarters for those votes. This time, Lucio opposed the athletics bill, saying he believes decisions about transgender participation are best made at the local level.