By Brendan Foster
The pandemic makes daily life a struggle for many Pennslyvanians. Rather than help their constituents, opportunists in the legislature aim to make life even harder for some of the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth.
Last year, Representative Barbara Gleim of Cumberland county introduced HB 972, which successfully passed committee last month. The bill bans public schools and colleges from allowing transgender women and girls to compete in sports designated for women.
As the name implies, the ostensible purpose of the bill is to protect cisgender women from competing against trans athletes, whom Gleim claims have an unfair advantage against their cis peers. However, like similar bills introduced nationwide, it actually uses trans women as pawns to ride a wave of backlash against advances in trans rights.
This bill is only one of a record-shattering 238 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in state assemblies nationwide. While many restrict or ban vital treatment for transgender youth against the recommendations of medical and psychiatric experts, 25, including HB 972 restrict or ban trans women from women’s sports.
Supporters of these bans often claim they are only recognizing the reality of biology, and Rep. Gleim is no different. At the same Education Committee meeting, she gave several examples of advantages trans women have over their cis peers, such as muscle mass and lung size. While this might make it seem like the science is settled, actual scientific studies show that things are not so clear.
A 2021 paper from the International Federation of Sports Medicine (FIMS) and the European Federation of Sports Medicine Associations (EFSMA) states that, while testosterone levels do give athletes an advantage, regulations for trans women must be written on a sport-by-sport basis. Nowhere do the authors recommend a total ban on trans women in women’s sports like HB 972 proposes.
Another 2021 statement from FIMS argues that, while there is consensus on regulations for testosterone levels, there is a “distinct lack of sports performance data to inform and update sports policy” for transgender athletes. In other words, there is currently no scientific consensus supporting HB 972 or any regulations on trans women athletes beyond testosterone levels.
Clearly, the existence of trans athletes in Pennsylvania must be an urgent crisis for lawmakers to so blatantly ignore the scientific consensus. Which begs the question: where are the trans women dominating women’s sports?
Gleim could not answer that at last month’s committee meeting, likely because trans people represent a tiny section of the population: A 2016 survey found 1.4 million American adults are trans, while more recent experimental data found around 2 million, a little more than 1% of the adult population. That means there are approximately 96,000 trans adults in the commonwealth.
In addition, intersexed people, people born with sex characteristics or genetics that do not fit into the male-female sex binary Gleim assumes, make up 1.7% of the population– about the same number of red-haired people. The bill does not say where they go, despite being just as big a population as the trans people Gleim finds so threatening.
If this is purely an issue of preserving fairness in sports, which it is not, this might be the most inefficient way of going about it possible.
There is also the question of how Gleim wants to enforce the ban in the first place. Her ignorance of the available scientific data is once again demonstrated by the fact that the bill offers no guidelines regarding testosterone levels for trans women, as experts recommend; it simply states that sex is determined by the reproductive anatomy and genes. This language potentially subjects trans as well as cis students, including minors, to invasive sex tests to prove they fit a pre-determined definition of feminity.
As Lancaster high school student Olivia Heim stated in a speech for the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, the femininity of girls that are simply naturally taller and stronger might be challenged, subjecting them to sex tests to prove their bodies fit a narrow definition of what a female body should look like. Ironically, instead of protecting women and girls, HB 972 reinforces a system that takes a purely fictional idea of what a woman is, and uses it to crush and suppress any woman, cis or trans, that does not fit into it.
There is serious doubt that, even if passed by the General Assembly, the bill would last very long. Not only did Gove. Wolf state that he would veto it, similar bills have been struck down or blocked in federal courts. If attempting to pass the bill is so pointless, it is unclear why Gleim would propose it.
The simple answer is that Gleim, like other Republicans and conservative politicians nationwide, is attempting to ride a trend in the culture war by attacking one of the most vulnerable and maligned groups in Pennsylvania.
Trans people attempt suicide at a rate of 40%, and sports can create a sense of camaraderie and belonging for people who feel like outsiders. Defeating this bill is not just a fight for the right to belong, it is a fight for life itself.
Brendan Foster is a journalist based in Harrisburg, Pa.