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Tennessee's transgender athlete ban passes legislature, heads to Gov. Lee's desk for signature

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 3/23/2021 Yue Stella Yu, Nashville Tennessean

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly state the bill would require transgender male students to compete with female students.  

Proponents of Tennessee's transgender athlete ban cleared one last legislative hurdle Monday night as House lawmakers passed the measure 71-16.

The legislation now will head to a governor who has expressed support for the measure. If it becomes law, the bill would effectively bar transgender students from competing in middle and high school sports under their gender identity.

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More: Tennessee Senate passes bill barring transgender students from playing high school sports under their gender identity

A spokesperson for Gov. Bill Lee said Monday the governor will respect the legislature's decision. Lee previously signaled his support by saying he believes transgender athlete participation would "destroy women's sports."

"The Governor has been clear about concerns around this issue and the negative impact on women's sports," Lee spokesperson Casey Black said Monday.

The legislation — one of the most controversial measures during this legislative session — has drawn sharp criticism from transgender Tennesseans, LGBTQ rights advocates and scholars, who deem the measure discriminatory against transgender youths and a move targeting a problem that does not exist in Tennessee. 

The bill is one of several that aim to restrict transgender children's access to school sports, health care, bathrooms, locker rooms and other school facilities.

In Nashville, 137 businesses, including Amazon and Nissan, signed an open letter condemning the legislative push for the athlete ban as well as other anti-LGBTQ bills this year.

While supportive lawmakers argue allowing transgender female athletes to compete with biological females would give transgender students an unfair edge, the bill makes no exception for transgender male athletes, who would be required to compete with female students. Bill sponsor Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who said the bill's aims are preemptive, acknowledged there is no evidence transgender students are competing or outcompeting others in Tennessee.

Additionally, the legislation contains no exception for kids receiving puberty blockers or treatments altering testosterone levels, a factor scientific studies associate with athletic performance. Both the International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association allow transgender athletes to compete given that they undergo gender-affirming therapies or take testosterone tests.

Tennessee part of nationwide push

The legislation reflects similar legislative efforts across multiple states and mirrors language linked to conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has a long history pushing for anti-LGBTQ bills. Bills in several states contain identical language from an Idaho law, which was blocked by a federal judge from taking effect.

Democratic lawmakers raised the concern Monday night the measure does not fix an existing problem. 

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, filed an amendment proposing to swap all the "musts" in the bill with "mays," which failed on the House floor. The new language would have allowed schools and districts the autonomy to deal with transgender athlete participation.

"There's no good way to amend this legislation," he said.

RELATED: Tennessee transgender athlete bill echoes nationwide push, mirrors language drafted by conservative group

"Should this issue arise, it will be because a child has done something more courageous than most of us had done in our entire lives," he said. "They'd recognized their true self and had made a difficult decision and had stepped up at one of the most fragile times in their lives in a difficult environment."

Several other Democratic lawmakers questioned bill sponsor Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, on the problem the bill wishes to address. Cepicky, who previously said in committee hearings he would not make much of a comment because of potential lawsuits, stated on the floor that his bill maintains "the competitive balance, the safety and the opportunity for scholarships and the advancement of our female athletes."

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, argued in support of the bill and cited a 2020 study by Children's Mercy Division of Adolescent Medicine in Kansas City, Missouri. By studying transgender personnel in the Air Force, the study concludes that elite transgender female athletes might still have a competitive edge over their cisgender peers more than a year into hormone therapy.

Using the study, Faison urged his colleagues to "follow the science."

"If you are in a sport that has to do with strength, who in here doesn't want a 12% advantage?" he asked. "You are not being honest with yourselves. You are not following the science."

However, Dr. Timothy Roberts, one of the authors of the research, specifically cautioned against using the study to ban youth and recreational sports, NBC News reported.

“I'm definitely coming out and saying, ‘Hey, this doesn't apply to recreational athletes, doesn't apply to youth athletics,’” he told NBC. “At the recreational level, probably one year is sufficient for most people to be able to compete.”

Bill draws opposition

The legislation has drawn opposition from researchers and advocacy groups such as Tennessee Equality Project, Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Laws that exclude transgender children from sport not only deny them an important component of physical and mental well-being, but also restrict their access to groups that can provide important sources of social support," said Adam Love, an associate professor of recreation and sports management at the University of Tennessee.

In a Monday statement, ACLU of Tennessee director Hedy Weinberg urged Lee to veto the bill and threatened to sue the state if he signs it into law.

"Instead of focusing on fear-based myths, our state should focus on the actual issues with gender parity in sports when it comes to funding, resources, pay equity, and more," she said in the statement.

Reach Yue Stella Yu at yyu@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bystellayu_tnsn.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee's transgender athlete ban passes legislature, heads to Gov. Lee's desk for signature

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