People working for LGBTQ+ equality in West Virginia are holding on to hope that Gov. Jim Justice will veto a bill that prevents transgender girls and women from participating in public school-sponsored sports in the Mountain State.
The deadline for Justice to address the bill is April 28, according to spokespeople for the state Senate and House of Delegates.
“Gov. Justice is a reasonable man. He cares very deeply about West Virginia’s kids,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, an advocacy group. “We also care about our kids. That’s why House Bill 3293 is so dangerous. It singles out the most marginalized kids our state has and isolates them from their peers. If the governor would take the time to get to know some of these kids and hear about their struggle, he would veto this bill in a heartbeat.”
House Bill 3293 would prevent transgender girls and women from participating in athletics in public schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels as well as collegiate sports if their gender identity doesn’t match their sex at birth.
The measure requires the West Virginia Board of Education to identify the standards and methods for athletic and education officials to enforce the ban.
Current state law bases eligibility for student-athletes to play on single-sex teams on whichever sex a school labels a student in the West Virginia Education Information System, Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, told the Gazette-Mail last month.
During his COVID-19 briefing on April 14, Justice said he was either going to sign House Bill 3293 or let it become law without his signature.
Justice said the only problem he saw with the bill was the potential for ramifications from the NCAA.
NCAA officials released a statement the same day threatening to pull championship events from states with transgender athletic bans.
“The NCAA has moved to a more political, or politically correct, or liberal body, and they could very well penalize us here in West Virginia,” Justice said. “There is some talk that we could come back into a special session and retroactively look at it and everything.”
Transgender athletic bans are part of a national trend in Republican-led legislatures.
Legislators in four other states — Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Dakota — have passed similar bans on transgender athletes, mostly transgender girls, since January.
Republican North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed the bill establishing the transgender athlete ban in that state on Wednesday. Governors in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee have signed those bans into law.
In August 2020, a federal judge in an Idaho district court granted an injunction against a transgender athlete ban in that state. Idaho was the first state in the country to pass a transgender athlete ban. An appeal is pending in U.S. Circuit Court.
The arguments about the transgender athletic bans in those states and West Virginia are nearly identical.
Backers of the ban say it protects female athletes against exploitation and unfair competition. No one has cited evidence of a transgender athlete dominating competition.
Opponents of the ban say it’s an attack on transgender people that risks driving transgender kids into depression and suicide.
Representatives of the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics voiced their opposition to West Virginia’s ban. Likewise, state medical, psychological and school psychologists associations all oppose it.
“Whether or not you support transgender people, we can all agree that the process of creating this bill was seriously flawed,” Schneider said. “No transgender person was allowed to testify about the bill. Legislative leaders refused to listen to multiple experts who were ready to testify. This bill was rushed, and it will be a financial and legal disaster for our state.”
Fourteen cities in West Virginia have adopted fairness ordinances that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public spaces, according to the Fairness West Virginia website. State lawmakers didn’t pass measures that proposed blocks on local governments adopting LGBTQ+ equality ordinances.
“It’s incredibly frustrating because the work we’re doing at the city level, the work that so many of my friends that are community organizers are doing — they’re cheerleaders of the state of West Virginia,” Wheeling City Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum said. “Our message is West Virginia welcomes you. This is a place where you can build your life. This is a place where you can thrive. When we pass laws like this, when we stake our flag in the ground of discrimination and bigotry, we send a very clear and straightforward message that you’re not welcome here in West Virginia. That’s not a message I’m willing to support or defend.”
Last summer, Ketchum became the first openly transgender person to be elected to public office in West Virginia.
Shaunte Polk, who oversees Marshall University’s LGBTQ+ Office and its Center for African American Students, listened to debate about House Bill 3293 while preparing for Lavender Graduation, during which the accomplishments and contributions of LGBTQ+ students are celebrated. In response to a questionnaire she sent, LGBTQ+ students said they felt welcome and safe at Marshall but bills like the transgender athlete ban take a toll.
“When they hear things like this or see bills like this, they get scared,” Polk said. “Every time we hear about these bills, and we hear about any new law or policy people are trying to put out and take away basic human rights, they’re scared like any natural person would be.”
Polk said the debate about the ban made her work and that of her colleagues more difficult.
“I love my state dearly, but I do feel like this has been a very, very bad message of what and who we are,” Polk said. “I’m always proud to spout out all of the diversity we have. If we do things like this, it will keep us forever locked in this place of being a backwards state, and that is not who we are.”