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Transgender girls and women now barred from female sports in Iowa

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks before signing a law barring transgender women from female sports.
Grant Gerlock
Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks before signing a law barring transgender women from female sports.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a law that bans transgender girls and women in the state from competing in sports according to their gender identity. The measure applies to public and private K-12 schools and community colleges as well as colleges and universities affiliated with the NCAA and NAIA.

The law's backers say it's necessary to ensure fair competition — although research has disputed this. Opponents call it a discriminatory attempt to sideline transgender students who they say make up a small fraction of athletes in the state and do not pose the competitive threat that supporters claim.

Reynolds signed the bill (HF 2416) in the Iowa Capitol rotunda, surrounded by young women and fellow Republican lawmakers who support the legislation. She repeated the claim that transgender girls hold a fundamental advantage in female sports.

"It worries me that this bill is needed at all. It's hard to imagine how anyone who cares about the rights of women and girls could support anything less," said Reynolds. "No amount of talent, training or effort on their part can make up for the natural, physical advantages males have over females."

Under the law, which takes effect immediately, only cisgender female athletes are allowed to compete in female sports. Transgender girls and women would be forced to play against boys and men. The bill does not address the eligibility of transgender boys, who would be free to compete in male athletics.

Ainsley Erzen, a high school track star from Carlisle, has been an outspoken proponent of removing transgender girls from girls' sports. Speaking at the signing ceremony, Erzen said putting the new law into effect sends a message to female athletes.

"The message that women are so much more than a hormone level, that the things girls love are worth protecting and their hard work and dedication is recognized and their dreams can become a reality," said Erzen, who holds a scholarship to run track at the University of Arkansas.

Becky Smith, the executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, which advocates for LGBTQ youth, held up a transgender flag behind the bill signing ceremony. She said she wanted to show transgender students that there are community members who oppose the law.

"It's just a reminder that transgender students matter, that they're here, that they're not going anywhere," Smith said. "Despite the fact that their rights are being infringed upon by the passage of this bill, we stand with them. We have not forgotten them and the fight continues for LGBTQ youth across the state."

Iowa Democrats opposed the measure, but lacked the votes to stop it from advancing in the Republican-controlled legislature. Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said the law contradicts the way school districts and colleges treat transgender girls and women outside of sports.

"Our schools have figured out how to treat trans girls with dignity and respect," Peterson said during debate in the Iowa Senate on Wednesday. "But when the school says a girl is a girl during the day but then under this bill will have to say she is going to be treated like a boy at 3:30 at practice it's hurtful and detrimental to the student."

Ten other states have transgender sports bans in place. Many of those laws — including in Idaho, Florida, Tennessee and West Virginia — are caught up in ongoing lawsuits.

The Biden administration issued an executive order last year that directs federal agencies to recognize transgender students under Title IX, which protects against sex-based discrimination in education and activities.

That followed a Supreme Court decision that confirmed transgender rights are protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which covers employment discrimination.

Smith said she expects legal challenges in Iowa as well.

"We think that this bill directly conflicts with both Title VII and Title IX on the federal level and this is going to open up a giant landslide of lawsuits against different school districts across the state when transgender students remember that they have a federal right to protection under the law."

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio

Grant Gerlock
Grant Gerlock is Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.