TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Despite impassioned pleas from LGBT advocates, a Florida House panel on Wednesday approved a controversial proposal that would ban transgender girls and women from competing in women’s high-school and college sports.
The move by the House Secondary Education & Career Development Subcommittee put Florida among the ranks of at least two-dozen other Republican-dominated state legislatures that have considered or approved measures requiring student-athletes to compete according to their sex assigned at birth.
Bill sponsor Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, said the transgender athletic ban is necessary to establish parity for biologically female athletes.
"There are inherent biological differences between men and women. The ‘Fairness in Women Sports Act’ supports women and girls by ensuring they have the same opportunities as men and boys to showcase their skill, strength and other athletic abilities," Tuck said before the panel’s 13-4 vote in favor of the bill.
But critics of measures targeting transgender student-athletes argue the proposals are rooted in fear, misunderstanding and politics.
"This bill would only marginalize and demonize the transgender community. If anything, this bill will create more unfairness, while we are trying to call it the ‘Fairness in Women Sports Act,’" Rep. Marie Paule Woodson, D-Hollywood, said. "We have to treat people the way we want to be treated. We need to focus on other matters that are critical to our state, to our youth, to our seniors, to our family."
Currently, the Florida High School Athletic Association has a process for transgender students "to participate in interscholastic athletics in a manner consistent with their gender identity and expression," a staff analysis of the bill said. The association is "neutral" on Tuck’s proposal, lobbyist Ron Book said in a text.
Rep. Carlos Guillero Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is gay, is among the LGBT activists condemning the legislation.
"It’s motivated by bigotry. It’s motivated by transphobia. And it’s not motivated, certainly, by any problems we’ve had in Florida," Smith told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
Transgender students have openly participated in athletics in Florida since 2012, Smith said.
"Florida Republicans are re-declaring the social wars against LGBT people in the Florida Legislature. They’ve lost on every other front in the courts, in the Florida Commission on Human Relations, and so they’re inventing new things to be upset about," said Smith, who does not serve on the panel that approved the bill.
Facing questions from Democrats on Wednesday, Tuck conceded that Florida does not have any reported complaints about the current process.
"We don’t need to wait until there is a problem to have a policy against it," she said.
But numerous speakers urged lawmakers to vote against Tuck’s proposal.
Nathan Bruemmer, a transgender man who is a former teacher and coach, warned that the bill would harm students.
"There are so many lessons in sports, but the barrage of attacks and attempts to erase through misunderstanding and false rhetoric are abhorrent," he said. "I have watched their pain and I have watched their suffering, and this will bring more of that. Celebrate play. Don’t let hate become part of the lessons of sport."
Paul Arons, a physician, argued that the proposal fails to take into account the "scientific, medical, emotional and social realities of the young people whom it would most directly impact." The transgender ban would "inflict stigma and humiliation and injustice" on vulnerable students, Arons said.
But Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, defended the bill, pointing to biological differences between his son and daughter, who are 12-year-old twins.
"Folks, this is common sense. If my son decided tomorrow that he’s now a girl, he could use his natural biological advantages to take opportunities away from biological girls," he said. "So, it does have a terrible impact on girls. This is wokeness versus science, and it’s time for common sense to come back into the room."
Rep. Susan Valdés, D-Tampa, noted that Tuck’s bill is identical to a 2020 Idaho law that a federal judge blocked from going into effect.
Before voting against the bill, Valdés offered a message to transgender students.
"You are loved. You are valued, and your humanity is not defined by a vote of the Florida Legislature," she said.
The staff analysis also noted that three female high-school athletes in Connecticut have filed a lawsuit arguing that a policy allowing transgender females to compete against biological females has deprived them of track titles and scholarship opportunities.
The lawsuit remains pending, as does the legal challenge to Idaho’s law.
But Florida and other Republican-led states are pushing ahead with the bans.
For example, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a similar bill into law last week. A measure passed by South Dakota lawmakers is awaiting action by Gov. Kristi Noem.
LGBT activists throughout the country are decrying the proposals, which Equality Florida characterized as "nothing short of an attack on at-risk youth designed to spread hateful stereotypes and further demonize a group of young people who need additional support and care."
Transgender young people "need to be affirmed and empowered, not used as political pawns," Gina Duncan, Equality Florida director of transgender equality, said in a prepared statement opposing Tuck’s bill.
"This is a community of youth who are already facing discrimination, bigotry, and violence at higher rates than their peers. Our focus should be on protecting them and providing them with the support they need to thrive, not attacking them. These lawmakers should be ashamed of how they’ve decided to use kids to fuel the fearmonger machine," Duncan said.