GRAND FORKS — Proponents of a bill in the North Dakota Legislature that would bar transgender girls from competing in girls sports is about protecting athletic opportunities for cisgender girls, or those who were assigned female at birth.
But Charles Vondal, a trans student at the University of North Dakota and the president of the UND Queer and Trans Alliance, is less certain about the bill's intent.
"It felt to me like they're trying to push a different agenda than trying to protect women's sports," Vondal said. "I totally understand women's rights to sports, but at the same time, there are transgender women, and transgender men. ... It kind of makes them as if they don't exist."
House Bill 1298 seeks to bar publicly funded or sponsored teams from allowing children younger than 18 from participating on sports teams of the opposite gender than the gender they were assigned at birth. It has passed the North Dakota House and awaits final approval in the Senate.
Vondal echoed fears voiced by other trans people that anti-trans bills represent efforts to legally erase trans people. Libby Skarin, the ACLU campaigns director for North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, agreed she and other trans advocates believe that's the point of the bills.
"HB 1298 is very much part of what has been a developing national strategy to try to enshrine bias against transgender people into law," Skarin said. "To enshrine standards into state and federal law that treat transgender people differently than their peers, and ... put discrimination onto the books. I think that what we're seeing this year is sort of years of coordinated work to try to get that done."
There are more than 80 anti-trans bills in more than 20 state legislatures this year. Many of those, like HB 1298, would prohibit transgender children from playing on publicly funded sports teams that align with their gender. The bills are modeled after the 2020 Fairness in Women's Sports Act, the Idaho bill that became the first piece of anti-trans legislation to be passed in the U.S. last year.
The Idaho bill was promptly met with legal action by the ACLU, and last summer a federal judge blocked the bill from being enforced pending its legal proceedings. Last week, Mississippi became the first state to sign a bill barring transgender teens from teams aligning with their gender in 2021. A similar bill was passed in South Dakota last week, and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Kristi Noem.
Skarin said it's not yet clear what the implications of the Idaho bill's legal challenges will mean for bills in other states. But if HB 1298 passes in North Dakota, she said the ACLU would not consider litigation to be off the table.
She sees the flood of anti-trans bills in the U.S. this year as a "coordinated attack" on transgender people, and a direct result of the increased acceptance and expansion of legal rights for LGBTQ+ people.
"I don't think that the folks pushing these bills are necessarily hiding the fact that it's coordinated," she said, noting that anti-trans bills have been introduced in legislatures every year since 2015 on issues from health care to school bathrooms. "Honestly, I think they think that they can win on (high school sports)."
The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said the basis for the bill is that trans girls and women have an unfair physical advantage over their cisgender teammates and opponents. But Faye Seidler, a Fargo-based trans advocate and policy consultant, said there is little evidence to support this stereotype, and noted that the North Dakota American Academy of Pediatrics testified that any suggestion that science supports the exclusion of trans athletes is "flatly contradicted by research."
Seidler also said the bills offer an opportunity to discuss how to help trans children and teens, who face an increased risk of bullying, discrimination, violence, homelessness and suicide.
"These are kids that research shows will thrive if people simply accept them for who they say there are," she said. "There are reasonable considerations to make the playing field fair for our youth, but HB 1298 considers none of them and instead seeks a sweeping ban that goes against all recommended policy created and tested by experts in their field."