The organization that oversees Wyoming high school sports already has a policy in place for transgender athletes, a top official said Thursday, one day after state lawmakers filed a bill that would bar transgender women and girls from participating in high school and collegiate sports that match their gender identity.
Over the past eight years, the Wyoming High School Activities Association's policy on gender identity participation in athletics has been quietly working across the state.
"It's a pretty sensitive subject as you look at it," said Ron Laird, the association's commissioner. "We feel that our policy has worked."
The policy states "All students should be considered for the opportunity to participate in Wyoming High School Activities Association activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s records." The policy includes an appeals process before a "gender identity eligibility committee" if a decision isn't satisfactory.
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Laird spoke to the bill's primary sponsor on Thursday morning, the day after the draft became public. He said the lawmaker, Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, was not aware that a statewide policy already existed.
The “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” or Senate File 51, is sponsored by Schuler and six other lawmakers. The bill is set to be considered when the Wyoming Legislature convenes for a budget session later this month.
In addition to implementing a ban, the measure seeks to protect students who may experience retaliation for reporting fellow students not abiding by the prohibition. The bill would also open the door to legal action on behalf of students who are “deprived of an athletic opportunity” due to a violation of the ban.
Schuler said that her main motivation behind requesting the bill was to "protect women and girls" and "level the playing field."
"I am open and supportive to transgender people," Schuler said. "I think the fairness thing trumps all. I'm not running this bill to make people's lives easier. I'm running this bill because I have to be an advocate for girls and women."
The governing body for Wyoming high school sports has rarely needed to invoke the policy, Laird said. Schuler acknowledged that point, but said it made sense for lawmakers to act now.
"Let's just nip it in the bud," she said. "I'm just trying to be proactive. I think it will become bigger deal than it is now. This bill would make it pretty black and white."
Laird said that from his standpoint, a state law isn't necessary because sufficient procedures are already in place. The policy already on the books would protect against a boy trying to game the system by joining girls sports just because he can, Laird said.
Handling situations locally works, from Laird's perspective. That's because people closer to students understand each individual case better.
"The school makes the determination, and that's why its effective -- because the school knows that student," Laird said.
Wyoming becomes the latest Republican state to consider a trans athlete ban. Several statehouses have acted in the past few years on some form of similar legislation.
"We're a conservative state, and I understand that other conservative states are passing bills and so that's where I'd guess it's coming form," Laird said.
Schuler argues that allowing transgender athletes on girls’ and women’s teams would detract from progress women have made since Title IX: federal legislation widely credited with opening up sports to female athletes.
"We didn't get the same opportunity that the men did," Schuler, an avid basketball player, said. Title IX being enacted "provided us the full experience of competition," she added.
"I'm not sure if we can take away opportunities from hundreds of girls because somebody somewhere or dozens of somebodies decided to transition," Schuler said. "I think that when you make that decision to be transgender, then maybe athletics is not going to be their lane," Schuler said.
The same day that Schuler's bill was published, the ACLU of Wyoming and Wyoming Equality released a statement asking the Legislature to kill it on introduction, adding that it has the chance of being deemed unconstitutional because it would fly in the face of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and violate Title IX.
"Trans girls are girls," said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality. "Transgender people are born into Wyoming families every day. When children are accepted for who they are, we see them bloom. We see their grades go up, their smiles brighten. All of the science, all of the Wyoming families telling their stories backs this up: transgender girls are girls. When we support them, they thrive. When we attempt to pass laws to hurt them and invalidate their experience, we are hurting vulnerable children."
Idaho passed the nation’s first transgender sports ban in 2020, blocking transgender women from playing on women’s sports teams sponsored by public schools, colleges and universities. Like Senate File 51, Idaho's law doesn’t affect transgender men playing on men’s sports teams.
In the summer of 2020, a federal judge stopped the Idaho law from going into effect, ruling that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the law was unconstitutional.
As of late 2021, 10 states -- Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and West Virginia, "have passed some version of a law or executive order to ban or limit transgender students from participating in school sports," according to the Associated Press.
Lawsuits are ongoing in some of those states as well.
In South Dakota, a bill that would ban transgender women and girls from playing in school sports leagues that match their gender identity cleared its final legislative hurdle Tuesday. The governor there is expected to sign it into law.
On the same day that Wyoming lawmakers filed their transgender sports bill, legislators in the Arizona Senate voted to pass a bill that bars transgender girls and women from competing on a high school or college sports team that aligns with their gender identity. Unlike in South Dakota, that measure must make it through the other chamber.
Wyoming's bill faces a tough road. February's legislative gathering is a budget session, and bills that don’t pertain to the budget or redistricting have to pass a two-thirds introductory vote simply to be considered. That’s a steep hurdle for any measure, but especially so for bills like Senate File 51 that do not have committee backing.