The last time South Dakota Republicans made serious efforts to ban transgender girls from school sports in 2019, their bill was known only by the nondescript numerical title of Senate Bill 49. The two main sponsors were men. And it died without ever getting off the committee, just 10 days after its inception.
But when the Republicans decided to try again in January, they were far more strategic in their approach. This time the sponsors were two women who modeled their bill after a template from a conservative legal organization. They gave the bill a name that indicated a noble intention: the “Act to Promote Continued Fairness in Women’s Sports”. Supporters from Minnesota and Idaho traveled to the Capitol in Pierre to testify that a new law was urgently needed to keep individuals with male biological traits out of female competitions, despite only recognizing a handful of examples in South Dakota.
“These efforts seem far more skillful and organized,” said Elizabeth A. Skarin of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Dakota, who opposes the bill. “Whenever you name a bill in South Dakota,” she added, “you know something is wrong.”
Then things took an unexpected turn. Governor Kristi Noem, seen as a possible candidate for the 2024 Republican president nomination, called for changes to the bill before signing it. The reaction was quick and harsh: Social-Conservative activists and Republican lawmakers accused Ms. Noem of being intimidated by pressure from business and athletics organizations that managed to stop laws in other states singling out transgender people for marginalization and ugly stereotypes nourish.
South Dakota is just one of more and more states where Republicans find themselves caught up in a culture war that seems to have come out of nowhere. It was sparked by a coordinated and poll tested campaign by socially conservative organizations such as the American Principles Project and Concerned Women for America. The groups are determined to take one of their last steps in the fight against the expansion of LGBTQ rights.
Three more states passed laws similar to those of South Dakota this month. They’re slated to become law in Mississippi and Arkansas this summer. Similar bills have been introduced by Republicans in two dozen other states, including North Carolina, where an unpopular “bathroom bill” enacted in 2016 sparked costly boycotts and caused conservatives across the country to reverse efforts to restrict transgender people’s rights.
“You are changing our society by making laws, and luckily we have some great states that have stepped up,” said Beth Stelzer, founder of a new organization, Save Women’s Sports, declining to “destroy women’s sports “of feelings. “Ms. Stelzer, an amateur strength athlete who was in North Carolina this week to introduce the bill, has also testified in support of new laws in South Dakota, Montana, and Arkansas.
Former President Donald J. Trump, who stayed away from the issue in the 2020 campaign, surprised activists when he kicked it off at a Conservative conference last month, saying that “women’s sport as we know it is going to die “If transgender athletes were allowed to compete.
However, the idea that there is a sudden influx of transgender competitors dominating the sports of women and girls doesn’t reflect reality – in high school, college, or work. Sports associations like the NCAA, which has promoted the inclusion of transgender athletes, have put in place guidelines to address concerns about physical differences in the biology of men and women. For example, the NCAA requires that athletes who switch to women receive testosterone suppression treatment for one year before they can compete on a women’s team.
Ms. Stelzer, who competes in a weightlifting league that transgender women are not allowed to participate in, says the goal is to surpass what she and other activists believe is a bigger problem. “We’re nipping it in the bud,” she said.
In college sports, where conservative activists have drawn much of their attention, the guidelines vary widely. Some states do not pose any barriers to transgender athletes; Some have guidelines similar to the NCAA that sets guidelines for hormone treatment. others have a downright ban or require students to verify their gender when interviewed.
Rarely has a problem that so few people come across – and one that opinion analysts have only recently dealt intensively with – has become a political and cultural hotspot so quickly. The lack of awareness creates an environment in which the real effects of transgender participation in sport can be overshadowed by exaggeration.
But the debate also raises questions – which ethicists, lawmakers, and courts are only now addressing – whether decades of efforts to offer women and girls equal opportunities in sport are compatible with efforts to provide transgender people with equal opportunities in life. A lawsuit in federal court in Connecticut filed by three high school runners who lost to competition against transgender girls will be among the first to examine how non-discrimination laws apply.
A mixture of factors has helped the social conservatives breathe new life into the issue: activists willing to abandon unpopular laws regulating public bathrooms; the awareness that women, not men, could be more persuasive and personable advocates; a new Democratic administration that quickly sought to expand and restore transgender rights that the Trump administration had overthrown; and a political and media culture on the right, which often reduces the nuanced problem of gender identity to a punch line about political correctness.
Activists who have fought anti-transgender efforts in legislation and in court say the focus on school athletics creates a false and misguided perception of victimization.
“There is a feeling that there is a victim of impermanence,” said Chase Strangio, an ACLU attorney who managed to temporarily block implementation of a transgender athlete ban in Idaho last year.
In fact, studies have shown that the majority of transgender students feel unsafe in school because of bullying and harassment.
“What we have is a speculative fear of something that didn’t happen,” added Strangio, who is a transgender man. “They act like LeBron James is putting on a wig and playing basketball with fourth graders. And not a LeBron James, 100. What you’re really talking about is young children who just want to exercise. They just want to get through life. “
But the isolated incidents that have been filmed or made headlines – for example, women’s weightlifting records broken by a new transgender competitor – are making for viral content backed by media personalities with big fans like Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan .
The topic is dealt with much more frequently in conservative media – and often confronted with a high dose of sarcasm. According to a review of social media content conducted by Media Matters, a left-wing watchdog for the New York Times, seven of the ten most popular stories about the proposed laws targeting transgender people so far this year are from the Daily Wire website founded by Mr. Shapiro. Two others were from Fox News. In total, the articles have been read, shared, and commented on six million times, according to Media Matters.
The increased media awareness on the right is in part due to how socially conservative activists have improved at packaging transgender-specific restrictions. They borrow a page from the anti-abortion movement, which has been largely led by men, and have begun to present women as public lawyers.
In Arkansas, where the governor signed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports” bill last week, chief advocates were Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a candidate for governor, and the Arkansas Republican Women’s Caucus. The bill bans transgender women from participating in teams from kindergarten to college.
In many cases, lawmakers have worked closely with groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative rights organization that has discussed several Supreme Court cases on behalf of individuals alleging discrimination based on traditional beliefs about marriage and gender roles. Messaging, polling, and political support provide groups like the American Principles Project, Concerned Women for America, and the Heritage Foundation.
In the current Idaho case, opponents of the law argued that it was exclusive, discriminatory and in violation of the constitutional equality clause. Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents two female college runners who said they had “deflating experiences” after losing to a transgender woman, agreed that it was about equality, but in the context of creating “a level playing field.” “.
“When the law ignores legitimate differences between men and women, it creates chaos,” said Kristen Wagoner, the group’s general counsel. “It also creates tremendous injustice for women and girls in athletics.”
Restricting the rights of transgender people is an issue that is resonating with ever smaller proportions of the general population. A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that only 7 percent of Americans are “completely against” pro-LGBTQ guidelines. But it is a vocal group that wants to show that they can develop their power in the Republican Party.
When Mrs. Noem sent the bill back to South Dakota Legislature on March 19, Despite saying on Twitter that she was “excited to sign this bill very soon,” socially-conservative organizations attacked, targeting her apparent ambitions of the president as a potential Achilles heel. “It’s no secret that Governor Noem has national aspirations, so it’s time she heard from a national audience,” the Family Policy Alliance, a subsidiary of Focus on the Family, wrote in an email to supporters.
Ms. Noem seemed aware of how damaging it could be for conservatives to believe she was on the wrong side of the problem.
On Thursday, she and her advisors participated in a hastily arranged conference call with members of the Conservative Action Project, which was attended by leaders from the country’s largest right-wing groups. Ms. Noem expressed concern that if the NCAA signed the law, as it did in North Carolina, it would retaliate against South Dakota by refusing to hold tournaments there, according to one person on the call. She has said she will only sign the bill if the regulations that apply to college athletics are taken out.
The activists were respectful but clear, this person said, telling her this was not what they would have expected from the conservative arsonist they had admired so much.