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Arizona Senate committee approves measure targeting transgender girls in school sports

Vanessa Anspach fought back tears as she told state legislators about her 10-year-old daughter. 

“When I became a parent I never imagined I’d be standing here today begging you for my  child’s right to be a child,” she said, her voice cracking. “This bill is about little kids. No child wakes up wanting to be different from her peers.”

But despite her pleas, and those of other parents of transgender children, Republican senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a proposal to bar transgender student athletes from playing on women’s sports teams for Arizona high schools and colleges.

Over the past dozen years, there have been only seven transgender girls in Arizona who have been allowed to play on a women’s team.

The measure, Senate Bill 1165, covers intramural and interscholastic teams sponsored by a private or public school that compete with public K-12 schools, colleges and universities. It requires sports teams to fit into three categories, solely based on biological sex: male, female and coed. 

The bill – introduced by Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix – would ban transgender girls and women from playing in a team that aligns with their gender identity by stipulating that biological men can’t play on teams meant for biological women.  

The proposal is part of a national trend in recent years to target trans youth and their participation in girl’s sports teams at schools. According to The New York Times, there are 10 states that have bans similar to SB1165. 

In 2020, Barto introduced a similar legislation that died when the legislature quickly wrapped up that year’s work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A key difference between the 2020 bill and SB1165 is that the latter doesn’t include a clause that required a signed physician’s statement of the student’s genetic makeup to establish their biological sex if the student’s gender identity was disputed. 

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Both versions are dubbed the proposal the “Save Women’s Sports Act.”

SB1165 is co-sponsored by 23 other Republican lawmakers. 

During the committee hearing Thursday, proponents of the measure said transgender girls – or “male bodies” as Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, put it – are decimating, permeating, and threatening the integrity of women’s sports. Opponents said the bill discriminates against trans women and girls, bullies them, and threatens the wellbeing of trans children and teens, who are at greater risk of suicide than their peers.

SB1165 passed on party lines with four Republicans in favor of it, and three Democrats opposing it. 

Parents make case for, against SB1165

Amber Zenczak told the committee she’s the mother of three girls who participate in sports. She said barring trans girls could steal away athletic scholarships from her daughters. 

“If biological males are allowed to compete as transgender females, my daughters stand no chance against a transgender female to win a scoholoship in a female’s division,” she said. 

Zenczak told an anecdote of inviting all senators to a game to “witness what appears to be a male playing on a female’s team that dominated” a game in a local athletic league. 

She said she was frustrated that, because of confidentiality, she couldn’t confirm whether the child was transgender. 

“We need this separation in sports,” Zenczak said.

But Anspach pushed back against the notion that her daughter playing soccer is endangering other girls. 

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“She poses no threat to other girls on her team. She’s one of them — just another teammate, unique in her talents, and just out there enjoying the camaraderie and friendship that sports provide,” Anspach said.

Other parents said the bill is a “life-or-death issue” that goes far beyond athletic achievements.

Carla Roberts from Tucson said her 17-year-old daughter is transgender. 

“I just barely got them alive,” Roberts said. 

Studies show transgender youth face higher risk of suicide, and discrimination is a factor that impacts that trend, according to a report from The Williams Insitute, which researches sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.

Another parent, Lizette Trujillo, said the repeated insistence from proponents that trans girls and women are men when it comes to sports participation is bigoted. 

“Trans girls are girls,” Trujillo said. “Saying they are biologically men is reducing trans people to their body parts, which allows you to dehumanize them. They are people deserving of respect, they are people deserving of their full citizenship.”

Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist for ACLU Arizona, said the bill will also harm girls who are not transgender.  

“(It) will also harm cisgender women and girls because it opens to door to further entrenched stereotypes about sex, and it increases the policing of all women and girl’s bodies,” she said. 

The ACLU considers SB1165 unconstitutional and an attack on trans women and girls, Rodriguez said.  

Arizona has rules to accommodate transgender student athletes

There are already rules in Arizona schools to evaluate requests from transgender youth who want to participate in their preferred team.

“All students should have the opportunity to participate in Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the sex listed on a student’s eligibility for participation in interscholastic athletics or in a gender that does not match the sex at birth,” an AIA policy states.

The AIA, which oversees high school athletics at more than 250 schools affiliated with the organization, was neutral on SB1165. 

AIA lobbyist Barry Aarons said there have only been 12 requests in the past 12 years from transgender students who wish to play on the sports team of their preference. Just seven of them were given approval to play on the team that aligns with their gender identity. 

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, and Nicole Cassidy, deputy director of Equality Arizona, both said SB1165 isn’t addressing a current problem. Instead, it’s jeopardizing the access trans youth have to important social and health contributions that sports participation provides. 

But Sen. Sonny Borelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said the current state of rules in Arizona school sports are “victimizing young ladies that are out there trying to compete for scholarships.” He said that, even with the ban on playing on a girls team, transgender students will still be able to participate in school sports. 

The bill passed 4-3 on a party-line vote.

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This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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