By: Colonel (Ret) Sheri A. Swokowski, Ph.D., ACLU of Wisconsin board member

The rights of transgender people in America are, again, under siege. State lawmakers  across the country are waging a dis-information campaign to roll back trans rights as the 2021 legislative sessions get underway. In January, elected officials introduced anti-trans legislation in more than 20 states, in almost all cases without being able to cite a single instance in their state where a trans athlete won an event, or kept another athlete from obtaining a scholarship.

Some of these bills would prohibit medical professionals from providing gender-affirming medical treatment, and ban and even criminalize trans girls for participating in women’s sports. This all appears to be part of a coordinated attack on trans people, aiming to rob them of their freedoms and invalidate their identities. 

A few weeks ago, some members of the Wisconsin State Legislature chose to join this misguided effort, as two representatives unveiled a pair of bills that would deny trans students the opportunity to participate in women’s sports at any grade level and in college.

Falsely heralding the legislation as a policy to protect women, proponents have branded the bills as a victory for gender equality, parroting thoroughly debunked myths about how trans athletes possess an unfair competitive edge over cisgender students. 

Athletic success is based on many disparate factors that vary from sport to sport, and being transgender does not give girls who are trans an inherent advantage over girls who are not. Despite the fact that trans people of all ages have been participating in sports consistent with their gender at all levels for years, we simply have not seen any dominance by trans athletes at any level of competition. 

The invocation of unsubstantiated claims to support false narratives about trans athletes is reminiscent of the tactics used to push the “bathroom bills” of a few years ago. Back then, lawmakers relied on egregious lies and fearmongering to mislead the public about the supposed dangers of allowing trans people to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. And even though those discriminatory efforts didn’t get enshrined in Wisconsin law, we are seeing a similar pattern play out today in Wisconsin and elsewhere. 

The truth is that trans students participate in sports for the same reasons other young people do: to challenge themselves, improve fitness, and be part of a team. And depriving trans girls of the opportunity to enjoy playing sports in the way the rest of their peers do sets a dangerous precedent. By taking away their freedom to engage in women’s sports, we invalidate the identities of trans girls and young women, telling them at a very vulnerable time in their lives that who they are doesn’t matter. That’s a message no one should have to hear.

Allowing trans girls to compete in girls’ sports doesn’t hurt anyone, as advocates for women such as the National Women’s Law Center, the Women’s Sports Foundation, Women Leaders in College Sports, and others have said. Participation in sports generally has a positive impact on students across the gender spectrum, and any effort to limit such involvement should be swiftly rejected. Research has shown that when trans girls are excluded from sports, they can suffer mentally, emotionally, physically and academically. Lawmakers who call these discriminatory measures protections for women’s equality are really just putting the well being of trans women in greater jeopardy.

Although Gov. Evers may well veto these bills, the people of Wisconsin should not forget what’s going on here. A few misguided representatives — people who are supposed to serve all of us, not try to divide us — are attempting to pass policies which would legally discriminate against trans students. We must band together to forcefully oppose these proposals and counter their transphobic narrative with a message grounded in acceptance, love and solidarity with all Wisconsinites. Trans people belong in sports. They belong in schools. They belong everywhere.