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Former interns want Tulsi Gabbard to disavow support of anti-trans athletes bill

Interns call out Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for bill that would discriminate against female trans athletes.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, center, with interns, including Bennett Sherr
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, center, with interns, including Bennett Sherr, next to her, who is an openly gay former high school wrestler and one of those who signed a letter opposing her anti-trans athlete bill.

A group of former interns for Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is calling on the soon-to-be-former congresswoman to disavow her support for a bill she sponsored that would ban trans and intersex female athletes from competing on women’s teams.

The bill, introduced earlier this month by Democrat Gabbard and Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, is called the “Protect Women’s Sports Act of 2020” and would effectively outlaw trans women from competing in women’s sports since it would amend federal Title IX to say that “sex shall be determined on the basis of biological sex as determined at birth by a physician.”

“Our legislation protects Title IX’s original intent which was based on the general biological distinction between men and women athletes based on sex,” Gabbard said in a statement. “It is critical that the legacy of Title IX continues to ensure women and girls in sports have the opportunity to compete and excel on a level playing field.”

Gabbard’s former interns were upset that she introduced such an anti-trans bill and sent a letter asking for a meeting and that she withdraw her support of the bill.

“We, like you, believe that the rights of all women need to be protected, including in the realm of athletics,” read part of the letter,sent to Outsports by Bennett Sherr, a 2019 intern for Gabbard who came out as a gay high school wrestler in Outsports in 2018.

“However, this bill does not uphold that same core belief. Protecting the rights of women means protecting the rights of ALL women, including transgender women. Transgender Americans, and transgender women in particular, already experience discrimination and harassment within athletics. To add to this burden by requiring them to compete with the sex they were assigned at birth, and not their gender identity, is harmful, dangerous, and discriminatory. Transgender women compete for the same reasons their cisgender teammates do, a love of their sport and a sense of belonging. In addition to bringing tremendous physical and mental health benefits, sport brings invaluable lessons on teamwork, and lifelong friends. Every athlete should have that same opportunity to have their life changed for the better.”

The letter is largely symbolic since the bill will not be considered this session, which will end with the passage of a COVID relief bill. With Gabbard leaving Congress, she can’t introduce it again. But Sherr said the interns who signed the letter hope they can change her mind on the subject and get her to speak out against any similar bill that will be introduced in the next session.

In their statement introducing the bill, Gabbard and Mullin repeat a lot of the anti-trans language — “allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports” — used by some states and school districts that require athletes to compete in sports based on their birth gender and ban trans women from competing in women’s sports.

The letter from the interns — some of who like Sherr identify as LGBTQ — does a great job of arguing why the bill is so discriminatory. It is also revealing that Gabbard introduced such a bill as one of her last acts in Congress.

A year ago, she apologized for past statements about LGBTQ people and issues, tweeting that she now had a “strong and ongoing commitment to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights.” Those comments now come across as insincere since she is not committed to the “T” part of the coalition.

Here is the letter in full from the former Gabbard interns:

Dear Representative Tulsi Gabbard,

We are writing this letter as former interns of your Washington, D.C. office and as concerned citizens to request you reconsider your support for H.R. 8932, the “Protect Women’s Sports Act of 2020.” We all have great memories of our time in your office and were excited to work with a politician we believed in, who put people over party. You always called us to stand for the values of service above self by prioritizing caring for others and working for those who have been historically marginalized and excluded. We learned this through your leadership and openness. That same sense of welcoming, compassion, peace, and love embodied in the mantra service above self is not present in H.R. 8932.

We, like you, believe that the rights of all women need to be protected, including in the realm of athletics; however, this bill does not uphold that same core belief. Protecting the rights of women means protecting the rights of ALL women, including transgender women. Transgender Americans, and transgender women in particular, already experience discrimination and harassment within athletics. To add to this burden by requiring them to compete with the sex they were assigned at birth, and not their gender identity, is harmful, dangerous, and discriminatory. Transgender women compete for the same reasons their cisgender teammates do, a love of their sport and a sense of belonging. In addition to bringing tremendous physical and mental health benefits, sport brings invaluable lessons on teamwork, and lifelong friends. Every athlete should have that same opportunity to have their life changed for the better.

Looking at your press statement and recent social media posts, it is clear that a lot of emphasis has been spent on the intent of Title IX and whether it was originally intending to discriminate against transgender Americans. Passing H.R. 8932 would define womanhood to exclude transgender women. Title IX is a landmark piece of legislation that had a profound impact on the world of women’s sports; the intent of the legislation was to create equal opportunities across athletics for all women. The signatories on this letter believe in the original, laudable, intent of Title IX: to uphold the rights of all women, including transgender women. As former Hawai’i Congresswoman and co-author of Title IX, Patsy Mink famously said, “We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and in our country, based on our personal experiences… to make sure that others… do not have to suffer the same discrimination.” This bill, if passed, would force transgender and intersex Americans to suffer the same discrimination that the co-author of Title IX sought to eliminate.

Further, many major women’s rights organizations already support allowing transgender women to compete. For instance, the Women’s Sports Foundation, National Women’s Law Center, End Rape on Campus, and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project have all issued statements supporting the inclusion of transgender women in competition alongside their cisgender colleagues. Institutions and sports associations like the NCAA, IOC, and high school athletic associations have policies in place that address this issue and create pathways to participation for trans women and girls to participate in sports with their peers. Each institution’s policy varies, but the bottom line is that they are navigating how to create pathways to competition for all young athletes. It is not the role of the federal government to interfere and take decisions away from experts and harm all young women and girls in the process.

We believe that it is time that politicians, like yourself, begin to focus on the actual threats to women’s sports. These threats include pay equity, a lack of resources towards the recruiting and retention of girls of color, sexual harassment and abuse, and a lack of women in leadership positions. These are all issues that the Women’s Sports Foundation has laid out as potential threats to women’s sports in their 2020 report[1]. Unsurprisingly, having transgender teammates is not one of them. H.R. 8932 is an attempt to legislate away a problem that does not exist and only further hurts Americans who already experience discrimination, violence, and harassment on a daily basis.

While you argue that this bill is rooted in simple science, the fact of the matter is that the science that informs it is faulty at best. Studies have shown little to no consistent relationship between testosterone levels and athletic performance[2]. Additionally, the idea that people who transition after puberty would have a physiological advantage over their cisgender competition is unsubstantiated. If this were true, we would have seen a single openly transgender Olympian out of the 54,000 Olympians who have competed since the IOC’s first transgender inclusion policy was released in 2003. Instead, we have yet to see even one. Their absence should be a strong indication of the fairness accompanied with allowing transgender women to compete in athletics.

When looking at the data, it is clear that cisgender women participating with or against transgender competitors are at no disadvantage or risk of harm. The harm comes at the expense of the transgender women who are being further relegated to a status of second-class citizenry by this bill. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has found that 75% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school and 70% avoid using bathrooms or locker rooms at school due to feeling uncomfortable[3]. Even more distressing is that nearly half of transgender youth will attempt suicide[4]. There are many ways to cull youth suicide, violence against, and depression amongst transgender people, and affirming their identities and including them in sports can be an awesome tool in addressing this pandemic. By preventing transgender women from competing against other women or removing them from women's sports teams, you are unintentionally contributing to the transgender youth suicide and depression epidemic facing our country.

Furthermore, this bill’s flagrant disregard for the existence of intersex people is another issue that must be addressed. Intersex people are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not strictly fall within the male-female binary. They are estimated to make up 1-2% of the population of the United States[5]. Upon passage of this legislation, they would be fully excluded from athletics all together. In addition to requiring transgender women to compete against men and totally banning intersex people from athletics, this bill requires that transgender men compete on women’s sports teams. For the same reasons as listed above, this is damaging to the mental health of transgender men as well as transgender women. We believe that transgender men are men, transgender women are women, and that intersex people exist.

This bill undermines the core values we all shared as an office. It discriminates and separates people from their love of athletics simply because of who they are. The cosigners of this letter request that you please rescind your introduction of H.R. 8932. We must uphold the values of community and love that we came to better understand through our time in your office and we cannot do that without this discriminatory piece of legislation being rescinded. As former interns, who dedicated months of our time in service to Hawai’i and our country through your office, we would like to voice our concerns with this bill directly; as such, we would like to request a virtual meeting at your earliest convenience.

Strongly,

Bennett Sherr (Intern, Summer 2019)
Komal Kamdar (Intern, Summer 2019)
Nuanua Iuli (Intern, Summer 2019)
Elizabeth Robinson (Intern, Fall 2019)
Grayson Sherr (Intern, Summer and Fall 2020)

[1] Women’s Sports Foundation, “Chasing Equity: The Triumphs, Challenges, and Opportunities in Sports for Girls and Women.” January, 2020.

[2] Cardinale, M., & Stone, M. H. (2006), “Is testosterone influencing explosive performance?” The

Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 20(1), 103-107.

[3] Movement Advancement Project and GLSEN. “Separation and Stigma: Transgender Youth & School Facilities.” April 2017. Available At: http://lgbtmap.org/transgender-youth-school.

[4] Human Rights Campaign, “New Study Reveals Shocking Rates of Attempted Suicide Among Trans Adolescents” September 12th, 2018. Available at: https://www.hrc.org/news/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescen

[5] Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.” New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07713-7.