On Thursday, March 3, Iowa became the latest state, among ten others, to enact legislation restricting transgender athletes when Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law House File 2416.
[ii] House File 2416, effective immediately, bans transgender girls and women in Iowa from competing in sports according to their gender identity.[iii] The Iowa law specifically states: “Only female students, based on their sex, may participate in any team, sport, or athletic event designated as being for females, women, or girls.”[iv] The bill defines “sex” as the sex listed on a student’s birth certificate or adoption certificate issued at or near the time of the student’s birth.[v]
Effective immediately, all Iowa interscholastic athletic events sponsored or sanctioned by accredited public and private schools, community colleges, and NCAA and NAIA-affiliated colleges and universities must be designated as either female, male or coeducational, based on the sex at birth of the participating students.[vi] Accordingly, only athletes with official birth certificates that list them as female will be allowed to compete on school teams, sports, or athletic events designated for women or girls.[vii] Thus, only cisgender female athletes are allowed to compete in female sports. Meanwhile, the bill does not address the eligibility of transgender boys who would be free to compete in male athletics.[viii]
Reynolds and other supporters of the law say it’s necessary to ensure fair competition.[ix] Reynolds stated: “Great things happen when women have access to the fair and equal playing field they deserve. But what would it say about a commitment to this principle if we let actual playing fields — the courts, fields, rinks, pools, and tracks of youth and collegiate sports — be tilted in favor of biological males with inherent physical advantages?”[x] Reynolds then went on to justify the need for the ban, saying: “No amount of talent, training or effort can make up for the natural physical advantages males have over females. It’s simply a reality of human biology. Forcing females to compete against males is the opposite of inclusivity and it’s absolutely unfair.”[xi] Reynolds finished up her statement, claiming “this is a victory for girls’ sports in Iowa,”[xii] connecting the law to what she called Iowa’s “impressive legacy of advancing women’s equality.”[xiii]
The passage of House File 2416 has drawn a firestorm of criticism from transgender Iowans, LGBTQ advocacy groups, and businesses who say this legislation adds to the discrimination that transgender people face, particularly transgender youth.[xiv] Sidelining transgender students, who make up a small fraction of athletes in Iowa and who do not pose the competitive threat that supporters claim, will only contribute to social isolation and stigma that fuels bullying and mental health challenges for young trans people – issues they already face at alarmingly high rates.[xv] Senator Janet Petersen said the law contradicts the way school districts and colleges treat transgender girls and women outside of sports, stating: “Our schools have figured out how to treat trans girls with dignity and respect. But when the school says a girl is a girl during the day but then under this bill will have to say she is going to be treated like a boy at 3:30 at practice it’s hurtful and detrimental to the student.”[xvi] Ultimately, opponents argue that the new legislation discriminates against transgender girls and violates civil rights laws.[xvii]
Just last year, the Biden administration issued an executive order that directs federal agencies to recognize transgender students under Title IX, which protects against sex-based discrimination in education and sports programs receiving Federal financial assistance.[xviii] Since then, similarly enacted laws in Idaho, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida have been embroiled in court battles alleging violations of constitutional rights and federal non-discrimination laws.[xix] Opponents have had some limited legal success in fighting these laws, including last year when a federal judge temporarily blocked West Virginia’s enforcement of its transgender ban after advocates sued the state.[xx] The judge stated that he had “been provided with scant evidence that this law addresses any problem at all, let alone an important problem.”[xxi] In fact, a 2017 report in the journal Sports Medicine that reviewed several related studies found “no direct or consistent research” on trans people having an athletic advantage over their cisgender peers.[xxii]
Ultimately, legal challenges are expected to arise in Iowa. Iowa’s bill directly conflicts with Title IX and puts educators and administrators in an untenable position of choosing whether to follow the new state law or federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in sports activities.[xxiii] However, as the fight continues for LGBTQ youth across the country, it is important to remember that transgender students have a federal right to protection under Title IX, which guarantees equal treatment of men and women in education and sports programs.[xxiv]
[ii] The other ten states include: Montana, Alabama, Idaho, Tennessee, West Virginia, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida.
[vi] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/iowa-transgender-girls-female-sports-teams-bill-governor-kim-reynolds/. However, the NCAA has come out in opposition to such bans, saying last April that it’s closely monitoring them to make sure NCAA championships can be held “in ways that are welcoming and respectful of all participants.” See https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/03/politics/iowa-transgender-sports-ban/index.html