Partisan rancor, emotional allyship and naked transphobia turned the first-ever hearing of H.R. 5, known widely as the Equality Act, into a showdown over transgender inclusive sports policies.
Republicans versus Democrats is nothing new, but Capitol Hill has never seen the mother of a gender nonconforming child who serves in Congress — Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington State — weep openly as she told their story. A ranking member put forth the erroneous claim that transgender women are men. Other conservative lawmakers said being transgender is just an “internet phenomenon” and part of a “radical ideology.” Another Republican said the real danger posed by the Equality Act was that President Trump would undergo gender transition and become the first female president. As frightening as that thought it is, that isn’t the point of the bill.
The sweeping measure would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, by amending the 1964 U.S. civil rights law to include these characteristics in the same way discrimination based on race and religion is prohibited.
Although it would offer protections in a wide variety of categories that range from employment to housing to financial credit, the effect the Equality Act’s passage would have related to athletics drew the most fire from its critics on the committee.
School sports are actually not mentioned in the Equality Act, nor does it amend Title IX, which outlaws discrimination in education on the basis of sex. But the bill would change other existing civil rights laws governing educational settings. And that would provide a legal basis for transgender students to make the claim in court that they have a right to compete on teams that match their gender identity.
That fact alone has sent shockwaves through religious conservative circles of late, stirring up opposition to the Equality Act on the premise that it would irreparably harm girls’ and women’s sports.
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida made the biggest headlines Tuesday when he said the bill would not only enable “bad actors who would exploit the provision for their own gain,” but that it could provide President Donald Trump an opportunity to make a gender transition.
“Consider as a possibility if Trump were to say I am now the first female president,” Gaetz said during the hearing. “Who would celebrate that? Would those who support the legislation think that’s a good thing, or would they be dismayed?”
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, claimed the Equality Act was actually bad for both cisgender and transgender athletes, and showed how little he understands about what it means to be trans.
Collins said the bill would “harm countless people who understand themselves to be transgender, and would demolish the hard-won rights of women, putting them at the mercy of any biological man who identifies at any moment as a woman.”
And then the ranking Republican went on to educate his committee members on biology.
“The biological differences between the sexes remain scientifically certain,” Collins said. “Men are physically stronger than women, which has made it necessary for women to access clear legal protection.” He claimed the Equality Act “privileges the rights of men who identify as women over biological women and girls.” He cited the case of Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller in Connecticut, each of whom ran faster than cisgender girls in track and field events, as evidence of this.
Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, responded to Collins with testimony, saying the women’s sports “haven’t been overcome” with transgender athletes winning races. Yearwood and Miller, she said, did indeed advance to nationals; but Miller didn’t participate and Yearwood finished in 31st place.
“There’s no evidence to support the claims that allowing trans athletes to play on teams that fit their gender identity will create a competitive imbalance,” Chandy said. “Trans children display the same variations of size, strength and athletic ability as other youth, and there’s no recorded instances of a boy pretending to be transgender, presenting as a girl to fraudulently join a sports team.”
Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmer followed Collins’ argument that women would lose athletic scholarships to “guys who say, ‘I feel like I am a woman.’” He claimed trans women athletes were men competing in women’s sports and that even though it’s not a widespread phenomenon now, “there is no question that problem will continue to arise.”
The Equality Act, Gohmer said, was a message to all women that “it’s just too bad” men should be allowed in their safe spaces, Gohmert called the bill part of a “war on women that should not be allowed.”
“I think when we consider laws to say something is equal like testosterone, the testimonies already indicate it’s clear in the medical literature, it does make a difference,” Gohmert said.
The Republicans called as witnesses former athlete and law Professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman of Duke University, and an anti-trans lesbian and former law and policy co-chair for Baltimore City’s LGBTQ Commission, Julie Beck. Each testified against the Equality Act based on their opposition to transgender women participating in sports.
Repeating the fallacy that trans women are men, Beck said the bill if passed would allow men to dominate women’s sports and girls who would have taken first place will be denied scholastic opportunities. In addition, male rapists would go to women’s prisons and assault female inmates, and female survivors of rape would be unable to contest male presence in women’s shelters.
“Everything I just listed is already happening, and it’s only going to get worse if gender identity is recognized in federal law,” Beck said. “The authors of this bill have done a lot of work to make it sound like gender identity is well understood and has been around for a long time, but it’s a new concept that can only ever refer to stereotypes and unverifiable claims.”
“Those of us who are athletes know that separation on the basis of sex is necessary to achieve equality in this space,” Coleman said. She ran the 800 meters in collegiate and international competition and was a multiple All American, All East, and All Ivy athlete. In addition, Coleman was the U.S. National Collegiate Indoor Champion in 1982, and the Swiss National Champion in 1982 and 1983.
“With respect, it is accepted, beyond dispute, that males and females are materially different with respect to the main physical attributes that contribute to athletic performance.”
Coleman added she thinks transgender women should be allowed to take part in sports, but called for the bill to require testing of testosterone levels, for transgender women to be permitted to participate.
Rep. Val Butler Demings of Florida railed against these claims that the Equality Act would destroy women’s sports. She described Republicans’ focus on sports as “looking for a technicality to continue to justify discrimination” against LGBTQ Americans.
“America just cannot seem to get past tearing other people down who are different in some way,” Demings said. “Our past is so ugly in this area. I would think that we would all do everything we can within our power to make it right, but instead, we sit here today, at least my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and look for a technicality to continue to justify discrimination in what I do believe is the greatest country in the world.”
The only transgender witness called to testify at the hearing, Carter Brown, had this to say:
“We’ve heard a lot about transgender people as a threat, in the bathroom, in sports.” Brown leads an organization called Black Transmen Inc. “My identity is not a threat to anyone else. As it stands, it’s a threat to me and my ability to provide for myself and my family.”
A land that does not provide federal protection from discrimination explicitly for LGBTQ Americans is “not a level playing field,” he said.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida used her time to make it clear, no man is going to transition to female just to win a game or a trophy. And her colleague, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, spoke movingly about her adult child who is gender nonconforming. Watch the video here.
During House Judiciary today, I shared why the #EqualityAct is so personal to me and my family. My child is finally free to be who they are. With that freedom comes a responsibility, for us as legislators, to legislate with love and not fear.Posted by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on Tuesday, April 2, 2019