West Virginia transgender athlete bill wins Senate approval

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Transgender females in West Virginia would be banned from competing in female sports in middle and high schools and colleges under a bill that narrowly won state Senate approval Thursday.

After 90 minutes of passionate debate, the Senate passed the bill on an 18-15 vote. The bill heads back to the House of Delegates to address Senate changes with only a few days left in the regular legislative session.

The House passed a version of the bill earlier that focused on middle and high schools. The college component was added in the Senate version.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice has not commented on the bill publicly and it’s unclear whether he would sign it if passed. The governor’s office did not immediately return an email Thursday.

Senate Education Committee chairwoman Patricia Rucker, a Jefferson County Republican, said the Senate bill is intended for the safety and protection of biological female athletes.

“This isn’t against anyone. It is for the policy of helping our girls, helping our women have the opportunity,” Rucker said.

Supporters argued that transgender females would have physical advantages in female sports.

The bill “does not discriminate,” said Mason County Republican Sen. Amy Grady, who voted for the bill. “It simply ensures that our female competitors will continue to have those protections, and it protects the integrity of women’s sports — for my girls, your girls and all the girls in West Virginia.”

Opponents have labeled the bill disparaging and another reason for young people to leave the state. Some said the bill could hurt the state’s ability to attract and keep new businesses.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” said Marion County Democrat Mike Caputo, a bill opponent. “The problem’s not the kids. The problem’s not the student-athletes.

“When’s the last time you sat down and talked to the young people in this state? They want a more inclusive society. My kids don’t give a rat’s behind what color you are, what your sexual orientation is, what you do in your personal life. The youth of today want to put this behind us.”

Several senators, both Republicans and Democrats, said they were opposed to the college component of the bill.

“We should have left college athletics alone,” said Sen. Tom Takubo, a Kanawha County Republican.

Last month hundreds of college athletes signed a letter to the NCAA Board of Governors asking the organization to refuse to schedule championships in states that have banned transgender athlete participation in sports.

The NCAA in 2016 moved championships out of North Carolina in response to a bill legislating transgender people’s use of public restrooms. Ohio County Democrat Bill Ihlenfeld was concerned a similar pullout of an NCAA-sponsored event could happen in West Virginia.

He also mentioned a planned certification center announced last year in West Virginia for a high-speed pod transportation concept promising up to 200 full-time jobs when completed. The company building the center, Virgin Hyperloop One, is part of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Branson is a supporter of the LGBTQ community.

“Some in this room don’t seem to care that this bill is cruel, that’s it’s narrow minded, that it’s mean spirited, that it’s unnecessary, that it’s purely political,” Ihlenfeld said. “You’re willing to risk that Sir Richard Branson is going to see what we do here and change his mind about building that certification center.”

Republicans in at least 20 state legislatures have been pushing for similar transgender athlete bans this year. Governors in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee signed prohibitions into law last month. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem killed a similar ban last month, then issued weaker executive orders that included restrictions.

More than a dozen other states allow transgender students to fully participate in sports without any issue.

The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission has not received any complaints about transgender athletes on girls teams. SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan has said the SSAC is unaware of openly transgender students participating in scholastic sports currently or in the past.

While the SSAC has no specific transgender athlete policy, Dolan said Title IX of federal education law has “nondiscrimination language that we support.”

A 2017 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA law school used state-level, population-based surveys to estimate that West Virginia had the highest percentage (1.04%) of residents ages 13 to 17 among all states who identified as transgender. That equated to about 1,150 teens.