silhouette of track athlete in starting blocks

A Look at Shifting Trends in Transgender Athlete Policies

By Autumn Rivera | May 11, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

In March 2020, Idaho became the first state to pass legislation preventing transgender women and girls from participating in high school and college women’s sports.

Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is a person’s internal, personal sense of being male or female. Idaho House Bill 500 prevents an athlete assigned male at birth from competing against those assigned female at birth on sports teams sponsored by public schools and colleges. The law is currently before U.S. District Judge David Nye, who has granted a preliminary injunction against it.

Restrictions Gain Traction

Although implementation of Idaho’s law has been suspended for the moment, the idea has gained momentum across the country. At least 35 bills have been introduced in 31 states this year to exclude transgender youth from participating in athletics—up from 29 bills in 2020 and two in 2019.

Mississippi is one of the states to follow Idaho’s lead. In March, the legislature enacted Senate Bill 2536, known as the Mississippi Fairness Act, which requires athletes at public schools and universities to compete according to their sex assigned at birth, as opposed to the one with which they identify. 

Similarly, the Tennessee and Arkansas legislatures passed laws requiring student athletes to participate in sports teams associated with the sex listed on their original birth certificate. Both Mississippi’s and Arkansas’s bills specify transgender girls, while Tennessee’s bill applies to all transgender youth. While most bills do not provide penalties for transgender athletes, those who compete in women’s sports in Minnesota could face criminal charges if House Resolution 1657 is passed.

Those favoring this legislation argue that transgender women and girls have a physical advantage over cisgender women, or those who identify with the sex assigned at birth. They say the legislation is needed to maintain fairness in women’s athletics by reducing what they believe is an inherent competitive edge for transgender athletes participating in women’s sports.

Additionally, in some states, athletic associations have enacted policies regarding this topic. The athletics associations that govern sports in public schools often maintain decision-making authority on these matters. States can allow schools, principals or superintendents to make eligibility decisions, which are then approved by the athletics association. A few current state association policies, like that of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, require transgender students to show proof of surgical or hormone treatment before competing in athletics. 

Critics Cite Discrimination

Critics of these policies argue that the proposals discriminate against transgender people. They cite mental health benefits associated with sports participation as a reason to allow transgender athletes to participate on the teams where they identify. With that in mind, California passed legislation requiring that schools allow students to compete on the basis of their gender identity. In January 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that prohibited discrimination based on gender identity in school sports, which may prevent the enforcement of some state laws.

States also passed legislation in 2020 prohibiting bullying and harassment of students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. For example, New York enacted Senate Bill 1047, which prohibits harassment and discrimination based on gender identity or expression. Similarly, Virginia passed House Bill 145, which relates to the treatment of transgender students and “requires the maintenance of a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination and harassment for all students.”

Overall, support for much of the legislation being introduced to prohibit transgender sports participation tends to fall along party lines; the Republican-led Kansas Legislature, for example, saw its bill vetoed by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly. But some governors from the same party have pushed back as well. North Dakota’s Governor Doug Burgum, a Republican, vetoed a transgender athlete ban, and Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, stated that he would not sign House Bill 302, which would prohibit transgender athletes from playing on girls’ sports team.

Autumn Rivera is a research analyst with NCSL’s Education Program.

Additional Resources