Which US states have banned transwomen from women’s sports teams, and why?

The American right has begun the Biden era by doubling down on culture war issues. National Republicans are increasingly framing “cancel culture”, wokeness, and progressive politics in general as threats not just to the economy or security, but to the American way of life. And high up the list of dangers is the acceptance of transgender identities – specifically in women’s athletics.

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the issue was the subject of its own panel discussion, and it has been mentioned in profile-raising speeches by various Republican stars, as well as by Donald Trump himself.

This is not just an ideological talking point, a useful bit of red meat to toss to a crowd. Conservative pressure to keep transpeople in line with their biological sex for the purposes of sport is increasingly manifesting in state-level legislation across the country.

These bills target transwomen athletes playing on women’s teams, rather than trans athletes in general. The first such bill to be passed – in Idaho in March 2020 – was titled the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act”. It takes a strict and scientifically aggressive stance on the biological differences between males and females – that is, sexual differences rather than gender differences. No distinction between sex and gender is included or acknowledged.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Idaho act was the first of its kind in the US. After being signed into law, it was blocked by a federal judge five months later, and a lawsuit to overturn it entirely is underway.

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While many states’ athletics associations have long had rules that impose conditions or limits on trans athletes looking to compete in accordance with their self-defined gender identities, Idaho’s move was a first at the statewide level. But things have accelerated since the start of 2021.

This is partly in response to trans-positive moves by Joe Biden, who issued an executive order against anti-trans discrimination on his first day in office.

He has also pulled federal support from plaintiffs in a high-profile lawsuit in Connecticut that would see trans girls banned from participating as girls on high school teams. The case was brought by cisgender runners who argue they have been deprived of victories, titles and opportunities by two trans athletes against whom they competed and lost.

These moves were cited by Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves when he signed the “Mississippi Fairness Act” in early March. “I will sign our bill to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities,” he tweeted. “It’s crazy we have to address it, but the Biden E.O. forced the issue. Adults? That’s on them. But the push for kids to adopt transgenderism is just wrong.”

Next came Arkansas. In a statement about the similar act passed there, Governor Asa Hutchinson said he signed the law “as a fan of women’s sports from basketball to soccer and including many others in which women compete successfully” and argued that the law was intended to have a narrow impact on athletics only.

“This law simply says that female athletes should not have to compete in a sport against a student of the male sex when the sport is designed for women’s competition… This will help promote and maintain fairness in women’s sporting events.”

Of the many other GOP governors with an eye on this issue, one of the most eager has been South Dakota’s Kristi Noem. A conservative hero and likely 2024 presidential candidate should Donald Trump not run for re-election, she initially expressed enthusiasm when her state legislature passed a similar bill to the ones other governors have signed. However, when the bill actually reached her desk, she issued a partial veto – striking out language that would ban transwomen from women’s teams at the collegiate level.

She later said she felt forced to do this because the state could face legal action or a boycott from the National Collegiate Athletic Association if she had signed the bill as written. Many social conservatives were furious with her move; her communications director chalked their anger up to “uninformed cancel culture”.

The degree of anger Ms Noem has faced is telling – and taken alongside the intensity with which some conservatives have focused on matters of gender identity in recent years, it indicates that there may be a broader agenda behind the state-level bills than simply preserving the status quo in women’s sports.

Gender identity issues have rankled many conservatives for some time, and with the fight on gay marriage now decisively lost, social conservatives have increasingly identified trans issues as a new front in what they insist is a culture war.

The presence of trans people in bathrooms, for one thing, has been a conservative wedge issue for years, reaching an apex in the mid-2010s with bills passed across the country – particularly in North Carolina, which faced national boycotts over the bill it passed in 2016.

While many mainstream Republicans have not waded into the latest rows over trans rights, a growing number of social conservatives are engaging with gusto.

Extremist Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene caused a row recently when she posted a sign outside her office door reading “There are TWO genders. MALE & FEMALE. Trust the science!” – this in riposte to a congresswoman on the same hallway who put up a transgender flag in protest at Ms Greene’s opposition to the anti-discrimination Equality Act.

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