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Gender bill sent to governor

Student athletes would be restricted based on birth identity by Rachel Herzog | March 23, 2021 at 7:19 a.m.
Rep. Sonia Barker, R-Smackover, explains SB354 regarding transgender athletes during the House Education Committee meeting Thursday, March 18, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

A state bill that would deter schools from allowing transgender girls and women to play on the sports team that aligns with their gender identity is headed to the governor with the House's approval Monday afternoon.

Hours later, a Senate committee advanced legislation that would ban administering gender transition treatment, including surgery and hormone therapy, to minors in the state.

Both measures gained lawmakers' approval despite objectors who said they seek to address a nonexistent problem and will be damaging to transgender youths.

Senate Bill 354, by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, gives a private cause of action, to seek injunctive relief and monetary damages, by students "deprived of an athletic opportunity" and by students or schools suffering "direct or indirect harm" as a result of a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school or higher education institution not maintaining separate teams for female students.

The House's 75-18 vote was along party lines.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said through a spokeswoman last week that he is "supportive of the objective of the bill but will continue to review the specific language before announcing his position."

House sponsor Rep. Sonia Barker, R-Smackover, said the bill will "establish a level playing field for girls and women in our Arkansas schools," arguing that athletes assigned the male gender at birth have physiological advantages over cisgender girls and women.

Supporters of the bill and of national efforts to prevent transgender athletes from participating on girls' and women's teams say they don't want cisgender girls to lose out on titles and scholarships.

Barker told the House Education Committee last week that she was not aware of any verified instance of a transgender girl or woman participating in school sports in Arkansas.

Reps. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, and Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, spoke against the bill. No member of the House spoke for the bill Monday.

"It's extra hard to be a kid, and if you're a transgender kid, your life's even harder," said McCullough, the only openly gay member of the Legislature.

Ferguson said she had heard from legislators who agreed with her on SB354 and other bills targeting transgender youths but still felt they had to vote yes.

"I am so concerned that we are allowing these big lobbying groups to weaponize religion to discriminate against this tiny minority of vulnerable youth," Ferguson said.

SB354 has the support of the Arkansas Family Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national faith-based legal advocacy group.

More than 500 college athletes have signed a letter asking the NCAA board of governors to refuse to schedule championships in states that have banned transgender participation in sports.

In the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, House Bill 1570 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, was sent to the Senate floor with no discussion among committee members and no audible opposition.

Lundstrum has acknowledged that the surgeries her bill targets are not being provided to youths in Arkansas. She said Monday that the bill seeks to protect children from making a choice they might regret later in life.

"These are children under 18. We are simply asking that they be protected," Lundstrum said.

She likened undergoing gender transition treatment to other things off-limits to minors in the state, including alcohol, tattoos, drugs and buying lottery tickets.

The Arkansas Family Council also supports HB1570.

The committee heard about an hour of testimony from nearly 20 members of the public who included transgender Arkansans and family members of transgender people, as well as medical professionals and social workers who have treated them.

The speakers said denying transgender youths access to gender-affirming care would result in more suicides among an already at-risk population, and shared the joy that came when they or their child was able to live as their true self.

"I just want to tell you how happy transitioning and living my truth has made me. Without that, I probably wouldn't be here," said community organizer Willow Breshears, who said she began hormone treatment as a teenager with no negative side effects.

Lundstrum said the bill would not prevent children with gender dysphoria from being referred to counseling, though objectors to the bill said it could be broad enough to do so.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, there have been at least 39 bills filed in the U.S. to restrict transgender athletes' participation in sports and 29 that would restrict transgender people's access to medical care.

More than a dozen health, education and child-welfare organizations, including the National Education Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have also urged legislators to vote against bills such as SB354.

Earlier this month, Mississippi became the first state this year to sign a law restricting transgender athletes from participating in sports.

Idaho was the first state to enact such a law, but its 2020 measure is blocked by a court ruling.

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