Republicans pass transgender sports ban in final moments of legislative session

By: - April 5, 2022 3:23 am

Sen. Sally Harrell raises her hand to speak on the Senate’s surprise transgender sports bill. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Republicans used a last-minute legislative maneuver to slip language that could lead to banning transgender athletes from playing on girls’ sports teams in public schools into a bill targeting so-called divisive concepts in classrooms.

“It was laid on our desks probably 15 minutes or so before we voted on it,” said Brookhaven Democratic Rep. Matthew Wilson. “I did a quick read and saw the language in there and immediately started running around the floor trying to alert my colleagues because I knew that if you just skimmed the bill, you wouldn’t have seen it.”

In his presentation of the bill, Rep. Will Wade, a Dawsonville Republican, did not mention that it had been amended to include language creating a ten-person committee whose responsibilities include determining whether “it is necessary and appropriate to prohibit students whose gender is male from participating in athletic events that are designated for students whose gender is female.”

The question of whether it is fair to allow transgender athletes to play on girls’ teams has been a topic of debate in the Gold Dome for the last few years, echoing similar efforts in other GOP-led states.

Early Monday, the Senate dropped an attempt to add an anti-transgender sports amendment to a bill related to charter school funding.

But Gov. Brian Kemp listed ensuring fair play in girls’ sports as one of his top priorities for the session, and he reminded lawmakers of that during his annual visit on the final day of the legislative session Monday.

House Speaker David Ralston indicated he was not especially interested in pursuing the topic early in the session, but speaking to reporters after adjournment, he called the bill a compromise compared with a tougher bill that would have outright banned participation rather than relying on a committee.

“If you read the compromise that we reached, there was no mandate from the General Assembly as to what to do,” he said. “We have now basically adopted the NCAA model by kicking it over to the (Georgia High School Association), and we’re going to let them make those determinations, and we have an oversight committee on that, but that’s really where these determinations need to be made, and hopefully, they’ll do the right thing as we go forward.”

In arguing for the necessity of the bill, Republicans point to high-profile transgender athletes like Lia Thomas, a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who became a flashpoint for debate after winning a national championship.

Democrats and transgender rights activists say the push is an election-year ploy for votes that targets vulnerable children who are not disproportionately winning competitions in Georgia.

“This was probably, if not the most controversial, one of the top three most controversial issues coming into this session,” Wilson said. “And for it to get all the way down to an hour before Sine Die on an amendment where we can’t have floor speeches, the only thing we can do is have parliamentary inquiries and ask questions to the bill. It was not how this debate should have been handled.”

Advocates argued in committee hearings that transgender children are at elevated risk of suicide, but that risk factor fades if they receive support and acceptance.

“Doing something like this, which takes extra feeling of belonging away from children who are at higher risk is something that would at a minimum deserve a floor debate so that the children of Georgia who will be removed from being able to play sports with their peers understand that some of us are out here fighting for them and valuing them and that we want them alive and included more than anything, is that not true?” asked Snellville Democratic Rep. Rebecca Mitchell.

The measure passed the House 98-71 before heading to the Senate, where Democrats complained they were not able to see the bill at all before being asked to vote on it.

Speaking to the Recorder shortly after the session adjourned, Atlanta Democratic Sen. Sally Harrell said she still had not seen the bill.

“This is my fifth term, three terms in the House, two terms in the Senate, and I’ve never seen this happen,” she said.

Earlier in the session, Harrell urged colleagues to vote against a separate anti-transgender sports bill and revealed she is the mother of a transgender child.

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Elena Parent filed a motion to print the bill so senators could read it, but it failed 21-32.

“It’s awful. it should be illegal,” Harrell said. “This is how we make law in Georgia?”

But while she is disappointed, Harrell said the fight is not over.

“I think that there will be litigation, and the fact that that bill was not printed and put on our desks, and that we made the motion to print it and we were ignored will be part of the court case,” she said.

Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said Democrats are wrong to say there was anything underhanded about the process.

“The process during the legislative session is that bills are amended if they’re in the same code section,” he said. “Both those bills have been in discussion and in place, so to speak, for at least 40 days. So any responsible legislator, whether they are for it or against it, should have been familiar with it, at least vaguely familiar with it, and frankly, should have been intimately familiar with it. So, I do appreciate their comments, but I would say that neither of those bills were new bills, they’ve both been around for at least 40 days.”

Speaking to reporters after adjournment, Ralston agreed that lawmakers had enough time to consider the measure.

“I think that they had had a longer time to look at a much tougher bill, a bill that, frankly, I had some concerns about,” he said. “And we kept working and trying to find what I thought was a more reasonable approach, and I think we did that. It’s not a complicated compromise, and so I think a few minutes of digesting it  is — often we don’t give that to other things, and people need to realize that we’re here for 40 days, and we have to do a lot of stuff in 40 days, and so we have to go at a fast pace sometimes to do that.”

Miller also took exception to the idea that the bill is designed to target transgender youth.

“It’s all about saving the girls’ sports,” he said. “That is exactly what it’s about, saving the girls’ sports. My heart goes out to all those that have an issue, whether they feel like they’ve been stigmatized or isolated or what have you, but girls’ sports should be in fact that, girls’ sports, that’s what it’s called, and boys’ sports are, in fact, boys sports, that’s what it’s called. The name says it all.”

Ralston, who will have the authority to appoint one member to the ten-member board, said the committee will not target transgender students.

“We’re not targeting them, because that’ll be a GHSA determination,” he said. “I’m going to communicate to them that I don’t want them targeted, and I hope that’s not the case because I think that’s a determination that GHSA needs to make in consultation with the member schools.”

Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report. 

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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