(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — The Pennsylvania House Education Committee on March 29 advanced a bill to prevent transgender girls from competing in girls’ school sports.

The “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” – also referred to as the “Save Women’s Sports Act” – was a Republican proposal and received a 15-9 party-line vote to advance to the house floor where it will be considered by the GOP-majority chamber.

The act essentially restricts student athletes to playing on sports teams or in leagues that match their birth gender. Teams would need to be defined as male, female or co-ed.

State Rep. Curtis Sonney (R-Erie)

Education Committee Chair and state Rep. Curtis Sonney (R-Erie) said the bill was moved to send a message.

“By moving this bill today, we are in essence sending a message to the PIAA (Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) that we do not agree with their current rules concerning transgender female participation in girls’ and women’s sports,” Sonney said. “Currently under PIAA rules it is up to the principal of the sending school to determine the gender of the student if the gender is in question, and there is no guidance offered to assist the principal in making that decision.”

In an email, the PIAA said, “This is a local school decision, and since the legislative process has not been completed, we don’t have a comment at this time.”

According to Sonney, the NCAA rules take a “sport-by-sport approach.” When requested, the NCAA did not provide a direct statement about the potential act, however it sent several articles about its transgender policies confirming that it does follow a sport-by-sport approach.

“In the end, this is about ensuring the integrity and fairness in women’s sports,” Sonney said.

Cole Schenley of Erie is a board member at TransFamily of NWPA. During a telephone interview, Schenley said the act could open all sorts of issues.

“There is a generation of young people that are much more comfortable with coming out in terms of their sexuality and their gender, and earlier than we have seen in decades past,” he said. “If this passes, through discrimination against young people who want to play sports we’re sort of putting an entire chunk of young people off to the side and saying you don’t get to play with others.”

Further, he warns, it could have a negative effect on CIS gender people (people whose gender identity matches their biological gender).

“If they have more masculine or tom-boy-ish traits, are they going to get discriminated against and have to prove that they’re a woman?” Schenley said. “People don’t think how the discrimination plays out.”

He also warned of potential lawsuits that could arise if the bill becomes a law.

“The cheapest thing to do would be to not pass it,” Schenley said.

A little more background

“No one should be forcing biological females to compete against biological males,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, before the vote. “It is patently wrong and unfair.”

In a co-sponsorship memo issued nearly a year ago, White and four other Republican women in the House argued that “allowing biological males to complete in girls’ sports” reverses some five decades of advancement toward equal athletic opportunities for women.

Republican governors in Utah and Indiana this month vetoed legislation to ban transgender players from girls’ sports, as the chief executives said bans address a problem that is virtually nonexistent in their states and is a distraction to broader efforts toward a conservative agenda.

Recent focus on the issue has been on University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a trans woman who won a title at the national NCAA Women’s Division I championship nearly two weeks ago.

University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)

That, however, is one example of very few examples says Tyler Titus of Erie.

“I implore people to even name five trans athletes that they know or are aware of — and most of the people they can name aren’t dominating in their sport,” Titus said. “This really screams of how tone-deaf some legislators are when it comes to the true needs of Pennsylvanians right now – most Pennsylvanians can’t name a trans athlete, but what they can name is someone who is hurting from medical bills, they can name someone who is hurting from unemployment.

“But this is where the Legislature is spending its energy, attacking trans youth.”

In a separate interview, Sonney emphasized that the legislation is not an attack.

“Somehow, (transgender activists) take this as an attack on the entire transgender community, but this is very much focused on sports, and in particular women’s sports,” Sonney said.

Fears

Titus is a former high-profile Erie County executive candidate who is transgender. They (Titus’s preferred pronouns are “they/them”) said they had attempted suicide twice before they had graduated from high school, and that this legislation is worrisome in that respect.

According to an October 2018 adolescent suicide attempt report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, female to male transgender adolescents reported the highest rate of attempted suicide at more than 50%, followed by adolescents who did not identify exclusively as male or female at nearly 42%. That’s compared to nearly 14% of the general adolescent population.

Both Titus and Schenley noted that youth sports are for community and camaraderie. Titus warned of a dire outcome if students are pushed away from that.

“This will increase the suicide rates of trans youth,” Titus said. “Most athletes don’t go on to play at the professional level – most play sports to find community and to find connection and to build a space of support. So when you deny a trans student that, you’re denying them one of the biggest offsets to self harm, and that’s social support.”

Tyler Titus of Erie.

In comments to YourErie.com, Sonney acknowledged the emotions entangled in the legislation and clarified the committee’s position.

“Absolutely it’s an emotional item,” the state representative said. “We’re not trying to hurt the transgender community. We’re trying to make sure that there is fairness in women’s sports. We just don’t think the PIAA and the NCAA have it right yet.”

Though the act is named the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” Titus alleged the act was “smoke and mirrors” and called the legislation “fearmongering.”

“It’s a fear tactic that’s promoting bad science, and it’s trying to scare people into thinking this is why women’s sports is under attack, but really, women’s sports are under attack because they haven’t been given the same resources or given the same opportunities (as their male counterparts),” Titus said.

In response to “forcing biological females to compete against biological males” and that being “patently wrong and unfair,” as Rep. White said, both Schenley and Titus disagreed.

Schenley noted that hormone replacement therapy essentially levels the playing field, but more importantly, rules already have been put in place by sports organizations and schools to ensure fair competition.

Titus questioned the idea of it being unfair at all. He contended that the best athletes always have a genetic advantage over their peers.

“Look at the whole subculture (of elite athletes) – they have a genetic difference or alteration that separates them from their peers, that set them apart and made them different. Look at the height of the average basketball player, or the build of gymnasts,” they said. “We need to talk big picture. You can’t just pull out one subgroup. If we’re going to have a discussion, let’s have a big discussion, and the whole discussion, not just the one that fits people’s argument.”

Age groups

Both Titus and Schenley said this legislation would impact very few elite athletes while impacting many children.

“When you’re a kid and want to play sports, you just want to play sports with your friends,” Schenley said. “Most trans girls and trans people who are playing sports aren’t elite athletes – they’re just people who want to play sports. The average trans person isn’t gong to rock your world in the sports game.”

Sonney said the issue could be very real for some CIS-gender athletes in Pennsylvania.

“When a transgender athlete rocks the world at the high school level, it could affect your chance for college scholarships, and when it happens at the college level it could impact your aspirations to make it into the Olympics or professional sports,” Sonney said. “There’s a reason they give trophies…”

Sonney also noted that he fully expects the bill will receive several amendments as it’s considered in the house, and those amendments have the potential to insulate children from the same restrictions.

“We all realize there’s a difference in when the transition takes place,” Sonney said. “Pre-puberty, during puberty and post-puberty, it all makes a difference in the length of time required to make the transition… The issue here, I would say, is really geared more toward the senior high school and the college athletes, and not so much the child athletes.”

The act received public input while in committee, Sonney noted, so testimony was received from “experts on both sides.”

“There’s absolutely a difference in when the transition has taken place. The PIAA and the NCAA originally tried to quantify that through levels of testosterone and the length of time before you could compete, and they’ve since dropped that,” Sonney said. “Frankly, I think with the original way they were on the right track, but it didn’t go far enough in covering all of the different age groups.”

Titus noted that during their recent run for the county’s top position, they did “face some hatred and pushback and some ignorance.”

“But when we sat down and talked, we found we had more in common than we didn’t,” Titus said. “We wanted the same things for our community.”

While Titus found middle ground and like-mindedness on the campaign trail, Schenley said there’s no middle ground to be had in his position for the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”

“Our side is coming from love and out of a sense of equality in wanting trans people to have good lives, and wanting trans kids to play sports with their friends and be fulfilled in the sports that they love, and I think their friends want the same thing. What we’re pushing for is something out of love,” Schenley said. “There are rules. There are regulations. It’s not a free for all. Maybe you should be listening to these organizations more than you should be trying to upend all of these organizations and upend these kids’ lives.

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“I find their motives to be suspect, and they should be listening to athletic organizations and schools and talking to trans kids who are playing sports and listening to how much it fulfills their lives – why are we going to take that away from them?” Schenley said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)