State GOP lawmakers’ debate over transgender school sports ban more red-meat than reasoned

By: - February 24, 2022 1:00 am

Kennesaw mom Jen Slipakoff told a state House committee in 2021 that a bill aimed at transgender athletes would keep her daughter off her school lacrosse team. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Jen Slipakoff said the Legislature simply does not want to deal with the details of their own anti-transgender bill. If they explored a medical remedy, like puberty blockers, they might rethink their reasoning for trying to ban transgender children, like Slipakoff’s daughter, from school sports in the state. 

But kicking transgender kids off teams is one of the reddest of red-meat issues around the country this election season. The Georgia GOP is feeding the eccentricities of its base for votes, Slipakoff says, and Republicans do not want to pour tonic water. They want to pour gas.

“We think a big part of the conversation that has been left out is this idea around what happens if students are taking puberty blockers and hormone replacement,” said Slipakoff, whose 14-year-old transgender daughter plays lacrosse at a private school.

Senate Bill 435, which passed through the Senate Education and Youth Committee along party lines and is now set for a Thursday floor vote in the chamber, is targeting girls like Slipakoff’s transgender daughter because she might be so athletically superior she could snatch away a college scholarship from a cisgender (biological-born female) girl, or lead her lacrosse team to triumphant championship over a team of girls, who have “female” on their birth certificates. 

The legislation, which was introduced by Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone, would require students to participate in high school sports according to the sex listed on their birth certificate. It is called the “Save Girls Sports” bill.

A similar bill was proposed in 2021 by Sharpsburg Republican Rep. Philip Singleton. But it never advanced to the House for a vote. And there is no guarantee House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, will even allow the 2022 version to advance for a vote in his chamber. 

Has Harbin considered a medical solution, like puberty blockers? He did not return a phone call or email to answer questions about his bill, which is similar to one of dozens filed by Republican legislatures around the country the last two years. Republicans, by and large, reject gender affirming care for people, of any age.

Idaho and West Virginia, with Republican-led legislatures, have been stymied by federal courts while trying to implement their laws banning transgender children from playing sports on the grounds their bills are a violation of the 14th Amendment and unconstitutional.

As of yet, no one has found a case in Georgia where a transgender student —male to female — has led her school to a state championship, or taken a scholarship or roster spot from a biologically identified female student.

‘Devastating and heartbreaking’

Slipakoff says her slight-of-build 14-year-old daughter, who weighs just 86 pounds, is no more capable of un-leveling a playing field with sensational athletic ability than she is of twirling a car on her finger. The eighth grader is smaller than most of the girls on her private school lacrosse team, says her mother, and does not run like the wind, or leap tall buildings in a single bound. 

Slipakoff, who wanted to keep details of her daughter transition confidential, says her daughter is an earnest, enthusiastic student, who revels in the camaraderie of the team she joins. She is no colossus on the field.

“It would be absolutely devastating and heartbreaking to her if she was not able to play,” Slipakoff said. “Her lacrosse team is made up of a bunch of her very best friends. Her teammates, her coaches, and her school feel she belongs on that team.”

The anti-transgender bills are dangerous, Slipakoff says, and she resents that the Republicans are doing a political dance on the back of her daughter.

The Trevor Project, one of the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organizations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer young people, conducted a national survey in 2021 and found a staggering 52% of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide and 1 in 5 reported having attempted suicide.

Trevor also found that Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported gender identity acceptance from at least one adult had 33% lower odds of reporting a past-year suicide attempt.

Slipakoff said Georgia Republicans are oblivious to the dangers of the bill. They just want something else to add to the stew of grievances in a major election season. 

Slipakoff said there are safe methods that could make moot the notion of an unfair playing field.

“This argument the transgender kids have this unfair advantage due to being a biological male goes away when you think about how medical treatment is affecting puberty,” she said. “When a biological male starts taking puberty blockers and, and cross hormones and estrogen that muscle mass disappears.”

Slipakoff’s reasoning of a medical solution is valid. Joanna Harper, a transgender athlete and world-renowned medical physicist who has advised the International Olympic Committee, published a heralded study in 2015 that found transgender women who received treatment to lower their testosterone levels would not dominate races against cisgender, or what the Republicans supporters of transgender sports bans consider “born female”. 

In an email response to the Georgia Recorder about the impact of puberty blockers and other procedures on transgender student-athletes, Harper said puberty blockers may not always be a solution in themselves. 

“Puberty blockers are only effective if started early in the puberty process,” Harper said. “It is generally assumed by medical practitioners and sports governing bodies that if trans girls start on puberty blockers at Tanner stage 2 (followed by hormone therapy), then any resultant advantages over cisgender girls will be small enough to be insignificant.

“It will probably always be the case that the majority of trans girls won’t medically transition until after puberty. At that point, puberty blockers are too late.”

Harper also said, “I think that in most cases, it is reasonable to allow trans women to compete against cis girls after testosterone suppression.”

Lia Thomas controversy

The issue is boiling again with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania athlete who has transitioned from male to female, dominating the Ivy League swim championships with three wins this month. Some of her Penn teammates objected in an anonymous letter to the school to Thomas being on the team.

Thomas previously swam for the Penn men’s team before undergoing hormone therapy. Critics of Thomas claim her testosterone levels are still too high.

Harper says there is a “reasonableness” to the arguments of restricting trans male to female from participation in women’s sports. But when it comes to high school sports Harper, who transitioned from male to female in her 40s, understands what these Republican bills are all about.

“Any bill that targets pre-puberty trans kids, or those participating in recreational sports, is odious,” Harper said. “These bills are not motivated by concern for women’s sport. They are motivated by politics and hatred of queer people.”

If Republicans had any inclination to research the issue they could talk to cisgender athletes, like Camden Hughes, a freshman at Georgia State University, who plays rugby against trans—male to female—athletes. Rugby is considered one of the most physical sports in the world and if size and muscle mass were going to show up as decisive, it would be in rugby.


“They are disregarding all the other factors that go into a sport by pretending it’s all about physicality,” Hughes said. “You could be the weakest person ever, but if you have a really good understanding of the game, the techniques, the strategy, you’re probably going to be better than most women who play the game, no matter their size.”

Hughes said she has not seen trans women lord over the pitch with superior size and speed. She plays in an independent Rugby league with former Division I athletes and said the intricacies of the game can negate athleticism. 

“It has never happened to me that a trans woman has ever beat up on me out there,” Hughes said. “I’m naturally big for a woman and a lot of biological women in the sport are naturally big. I just don’t see a difference between myself and a trans woman.” 

Bill Curry, the former Alabama, Georgia State and Georgia Tech football coach and star offensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers, does not label the transgender bill merely as sex biased, but “human bias.” It is a failing over and over of our society, Curry said, to marginalize people based on sex, race, or creed.

He wonders, though, if the discrimination against trans athletes might eventually be defeated the same way discrimination against Black athletes was defeated.

“I am strongly reminded of the days we had all-white teams,” said Curry, who is a consultant to the National Federation of State High School Associations through his firm, AIM Sports Reputation Management. “As I played in college in the sixties we were witnessing protests in school house doors and were being told integration would never happen. In time, leaders like Bear Bryant, and others, proved the old way of thinking was dead wrong.

“People who wish to fight this next transition to include transgender student athletes will blindly continue to do so. Meanwhile, sound minds and thoughtful, progressive leaders will find solutions to these complex issues. Let’s just hope we can accomplish our mission of serving all our students in a more reasonable time span this time.”

Until that day, Slipakoff and other parents of trans kids are trying to shield their children from onerous laws and eliminate risks to their well-being.

“My guess is that Senator Harbin has never met a transgender child or transgender girl,” Slipakoff said. “I think that if he had the opportunity to meet my daughter, whatever ideas he has in his head would really be challenged.”

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Ray Glier
Ray Glier

Ray Glier is a freelance Journalist in Atlanta. He has covered local and national sports for 45 years for The New York Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and many others.