Republican lawmakers in Michigan are stepping back into the national debate over the right of transgender athletes to participate in scholastic sports.
After a Senate effort to limit opportunities for transgender athletes stalled last year, state Republicans found a new vehicle: the state budget.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee advanced a K-12 school aid budget late Wednesday that includes language requiring school districts and intermediate school districts to prohibit what the measure refers to as “boys” from competing on girls’ or women’s teams.
Although the language doesn’t include the word “transgender,” it’s clear who it is meant to apply to, said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project.
“Boys don’t play on girls’ sports teams,” he said. “We don’t see that in high school. This is about transgender girls.”
State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said at the hearing that the measure is about fairness and isn’t meant to be cruel or to marginalize anyone.
“There are advantages that men have biologically that gives them an advantage when it comes to competitive sports,” Albert said. “Just physically, we’re stronger. We’re faster, and I just don’t think it’s fair for girls. I think it puts them at a competitive disadvantage.”
He added: “I just want my daughters to have the same opportunities as my sons.”
Before the Appropriations Committee considered it, the bill was discussed Tuesday in the House Subcommittee on School Aid and Department of Education. The seven Republicans on that panel voted to recommend the bill while three Democrats voted no and one passed on the vote.
Regina Weiss, D-Oak Park, a member of the Appropriations Committee and minority vice chair of the subcommittee, tried to strip the language at the committee meeting, but her amendment failed on a party-line vote.
Weiss called the measure’s language “needlessly cruel” and said it didn’t belong in a budget bill.
“Being a kid is hard enough, especially in today’s world,” Weiss said. “When kids are growing up and figuring out who they are, the last thing they need is a bunch of adults trying to shame them, segregate, and marginalize them.”
Studies show transgender and gender nonconforming youth and teens have far higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
Hazel Park Schools superintendent Amy Kruppe told Bridge Michigan she isn’t surprised by the budget proposal. She said public schools are under increased scrutiny amid debates over book bans, curriculum transparency, and teaching critical race theory. Kruppe said the conversation should instead focus on making students feel safe and acknowledged.
In Hazel Park, a district of about 3,000 students, the sports measure would affect fewer than three students, she said.
“I don’t think it’ll go through, but I do think there will be a lot of conversation about it,” she said.
Albert argued at the hearing that it’s important that cisgender girls not lose out on scholarship opportunities. But Weiss pushed back, asking if there was evidence of that in Michigan. Albert said it’s a growing trend nationally.
About 1.8% of high school students identify as transgender, according to a population survey conducted in 2017 across 10 states, including Michigan, and nine urban school districts including Detroit in 2017.
Kaplan, the ACLU attorney, said the number of transgender girls playing high school sports in Michigan is “infinitesimally small” and that proponents of the ban are politically motivated.
“They’ve made a calculation that this helps them firm up their political base to get out the vote, and it helps them fundraise, but the impact is to further marginalize transgender kids,” he said. “These politicians have decided that their own political power is more important than the well-being of transgender youth.”
At least 13 other states have enacted laws governing the participation of transgender athletes on school teams. An Alabama law, for example, says a public school “may never allow a biological male to participate on a female team.” In Arizona, eligibility is determined by a committee that considers the student’s “gender story” along with input from administrators and doctors.
The issue bubbled up last week in Kansas when Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bill requiring students’ participation in school activities to align with their “biological sex.” The state’s Senate voted to override her veto Tuesday.
University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas made news in March when she became the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA swimming championship. The Guardian reported that the NCAA decided not to follow the USA Swmming policy where transgender athletes must undergo three years of hormone replacement therapy before competing. Thomas had six months to go before meeting that requirement. Her participation has sparked fierce debate between those who say she has the right to compete and those who say her participation is hurting women’s sports.
In the Michigan Senate, a school aid fund proposal that advanced in the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday did not include language about students’ gender and athletics.
If the athletics provision makes it into the final budget passed by both chambers, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer can intervene. The governor can declare measures within budget proposals unconstitutional or unenforceable as Whitmer did last year with provisions related to mask and vaccine orders. Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.
With both legislative chambers controlled by Republicans, “the governor remains the firewall to make sure this doesn’t happen in Michigan, that Michigan is not a state that would harm its most vulnerable population,” the ACLU’s Kaplan said.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a policy adopted in 2012 that determines post-season tournament eligibility for transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis, Bridge reported last year.
At the time, association spokesperson Geoff Kimmerly told Bridge the group had received and approved 10 applications in the past five years. On Wednesday, Kimmerly said its policy has not changed in the year since and that it “works for our schools, and it’s been followed without issue.”
He said no one in the Legislature contacted the organization about this language before the budget proposal was presented.
The issue also did not come up among local school superintendents at a meeting Wednesday morning, according to Ingham Intermediate School District Superintendent Jason Mellema.
“I would have a strong assumption or a personal belief that this would not affect any ISDs in the state, because ISDs don’t directly support interscholastic programs.”
While adding the language to the budget bill is a new tactic, it’s not the first time GOP lawmakers raised the issue.
State Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, proposed a bill last year that would have required student athletes to compete on teams that aligned with their “biological sex.” Theis’ bill defined “biological sex” as “the physical condition of being male or female as determined by an individual’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth.”
The House appropriations bill debated Wednesday does not refer to “biological sex” or define the terms “boys” or “girls.”
Theis also has proposed legislation that would ban critical race theory.
Isabel Lohman covers education for Bridge Michigan. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at email@example.com.