As elected officials across the country worked on slowing the spread of the coronavirus, Idaho state legislators had other priorities. On March 16 — three days after the White House declared a national emergency, as cases of COVID-19 continued to climb — Idaho lawmakers pushed through a bill that would ban transgender girls and women from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity, and effectively compel any female student-athlete to undergo an invasive pelvic exam in order to "prove" she is cisgender. The bill was passed by the state Senate in a 24-11 vote.
Now, Governor Brad Little has until Tuesday, March 31, to either veto House Bill 500 or sign it into law, a move that would result in an ongoing legal battle, with civil rights advocates already committed to filing a lawsuit. "We've been warning the state about that for weeks now," Ritchie Eppink, legal director of the ACLU of Idaho, told POPSUGAR. "The Idaho Attorney General warned the legislature about the bill's serious flaws as well." At a time when the nation is bracing for the economic impact of a global pandemic, litigation would only add to the burden. "It will cost Idaho's taxpayers considerably to defend this hateful bill," Eppink said.
Those consequences pale in comparison to those faced by the athletes themselves — and experts worry that the legislation could fuel even more attacks on the rights of the trans community.
"If I Was a Trans Student Now, I Would Be Devastated"
Eppink described HB 500 as "a constitutional nightmare," noting that by preventing transgender girls and women from participating in athletic programs based on their identity, the legislation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution and the Idaho Constitution, in addition to Title IX, a federal law that protects students against discrimination.
That would be harmful enough, but the vague language in the bill opens the door for anyone — athletes on rival teams, parents, even teammates — to demand that any female athlete undergo a pelvic exam in order to remain on her team. "With this specific bill, there's no limit to who can accuse who of being transgender," Sara L. Swoboda, MD, an Idaho-based pediatrician, told POPSUGAR. "Anyone participating in female sports would be at risk of someone accusing you of being transgender for any reason, like if they think you're too good or they don't like you."
Even if HB 500 is vetoed, the discussion surrounding the legislation has already caused damaged that won't be easily repaired. "I think if I was a trans student now, I would be devastated to hear the testimony and the vile things that lawmakers are saying about trans youth," Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete and advocate, told POPSUGAR. "These young people and their families, their parents, and their peers have to listen to people debate whether or not they're real and whether or not they deserve the same treatment as the rest of their classmates."
"We know that no one is transitioning for athletic glory."
Mosier noted that the language used by lawmakers who support HB 500 — who often refer to trans girls as "biological boys" — invalidates the identities of trans people. "They're talking about boys playing girls' sports. It doesn't apply to the bill, but that's how they're trying to pass it," he said. One the most stunning comments: "[One representative] painted a picture that trans girls were just boys who couldn't make it on a boys' team and wanted to beat girls, when in fact we know that no one is transitioning for athletic glory," explained Mosier, who travelled to Idaho earlier this month to speak out against the legislation.
Mosier told POPSUGAR that the message from lawmakers was clear: "Trans teens are seen as a threat to sports, and to their peers, as if trans people are not people at all, but rather scary monsters with intentions of ruining girls' sports," he said. "This type of language and rhetoric emboldens community members to further misunderstand and mistreat transgender Idahoans."
"Sports Were the Place Where I Felt Most Like Myself"
Dr. Swoboda explained that the mere possibility of being forced to undergo an examination of internal and external genitalia would be enough to dissuade transgender teens from joining sports teams — and participation in sports often plays a crucial role in the psychological and mental well-being of this population. According to research gathered by The Trevor Project, transgender youth experience significantly higher rates of depression than their cisgender peers, and one in three transgender youth attempted suicide in 2018. Being a member of a team can be a protective factor.
"Kids who participate in activities like sports are happier, they do better in school, and they're more likely to go to college," Dr. Swoboda said. "Why would we exclude one of our most vulnerable populations from that resource?"
Eppink fears that the passage of the bill would have a profound impact on how transgender students are treated. "It will increase the already hostile school environments that trans students and women in general have to deal with on a day-to-day basis," he told POPSUGAR. "It's going to encourage the bullying and harassment that trans students already experience." A 2017 study found that nearly 84 percent of transgender students were bullied or harassed. Dr. Swoboda emphasised that acceptance by both one's peers and authority figures such as coaches is beneficial to the mental health of these teens.
As a young athlete, Mosier found his community through sports. "It was the place where I felt most like myself," he said. Being on a team gave him a sense of belonging, and helped him feel more accepted by his peers. "I know the transformational power of sports and of being on a team. That can greatly help with mental health and feeling supported and safe, whether [trans teens] are out to their team or not," he said. Mosier said having the support of your peers as you work towards a common goal is something that transgender youth find in very few other places.
While the harm that's been inflicted on the trans community in Idaho is devastating, there are also concerns that HB 500 could pave the way for more transphobic bills. "This is actually just the beginning, so it's critical that we stop this in its tracks so there's no momentum for lawmakers that are really trying to eliminate trans people from public spaces," Mosier told POPSUGAR.
The ACLU is prepared to fight, in hopes of deterring lawmakers across the nation from following Idaho's lead. "Hopefully the courts will stop this," Eppink said. "Because it's obviously unconstitutional and this is a crucial fight here in Idaho right now."