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How anti-trans sports hysteria played into a broader trans rights ban in Ohio

HB68 combines a ban of trans student-athletes from their gender category with a ban on what would remedy the sports issue.

Ember Zelch, now a collegian, spoke out for her opportunity to play as a trans high school student in Ohio
Minna Zelch

Update Jan 24: The Ohio Senate voted to override the veto of Gov. Mike DeWine (R) on HB68, 23-9. The law will take effect in late April.

Update Jan. 10: The Ohio House voted to override the veto of Gov. Mike DeWine (R) on HB68, 65-28. The Senate will vote on an override when it returns to session, January 24. A two-thirds majority — 22 votes in Ohio’s Senate — is needed to confirm the override.

Original story, Jan. 9: Ohio is in line to be the next state to pass a ban on transgender students playing sports that correspond with their gender in schools. Despite a veto from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on December 29, the state’s Republican legislative supermajority is expected to override it this week.

House Bill 68 includes a targeted ban on transgender girls playing for their school teams in female sports and a ban on gender-affirming health care for trans youth under age 18.

In response to the veto, DeWine has also penned an executive order that would ban transition-related surgery for those under 18 and put forth restrictions on gender-affirming care for adults.

Political observers see the governor’s actions as an attempt to placate a state party eager to override a veto and scrambling to start the legislative session early to do it, plus a national GOP looking for an issue to galvanize their base in this year’s elections.

Such is on the mind of an Ohio parent who has been in the thick of this fight.

“They are coming back two weeks early just to pass this override and then have a hearing on a bathroom ban,” Minna Zelch told Outsports. “They are coming back from vacation just so they can terrorize and harass transgender kids.”

Minna Zelch (left) is frustrated that after three years of struggle for her daughter Ember (right), HB68 will do even worse for trans youth in Ohio now.

Zelch’s daughter Ember has been a face of this issue in Ohio for three years. She was a catcher for her high school softball team and was eligible by all regulations of the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

In her senior year, she was the only out trans girl among the more than 200,000 participating female student-athletes in the state.

Two months after being granted eligibility for her first softball season in 2021, the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” designed to ban trans girls from girls’ school sports, was introduced. Zelch found herself lobbying lawmakers in Columbus for her right to play.

“It’s demeaning and it’s horrifically painful to have to look up at people in these big chairs above you and essentially plead to them to not take away your rights,” Ember Zelch, now in college at a school out of state, said in an interview with the Pablo Torre Finds Out podcast earlier this year. “It’s clear that they do not want to be knowledgeable. They want to have power.”

That initial act was defeated twice that year and again in 2022.

The push for it intensified as the issue grew nationwide throughout 2022. DeWine publicly opposed it, noting that OHSAA already had regulations in place and should be left to administer them without government interference.

At the same time, the push to ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youth within the state was introduced. Ohio Republican state representative Gary Click introduced the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act.”

The measure met strong opposition, especially from healthcare professionals statewide. GOP legislators seeking to get the measure passed by the 2022 elections were forced to stand down to 2023. Its proponents decided to link two issues — sports participation and gender-affirming care — together to forge HB68.

Last year, anti-LGBTQ lobbies such as the Alliance Defending Freedom pushed to make HB68 law. A familiar face against trans participation in sports, former collegiate swimmer and now anti-trans activist Riley Gaines, was among the headliners at the proponents’ hearings in late November.

Anne Anderson (left) worries for her daughter Bradie (right) because HB68 would take her place in her sport and gender-affirming health care away
Ohio Channel (left) / Anne Anderson (right)

Gaines’ presence showed how far supporters would go to make their pitch.

“They added the sports ban to the health care ban because the health care ban was not popular at all,” Anne Anderson, a Cleveland parent-turned-activist said. “What they’ve done is that they’ve boogeymanned the trans community.”

This issue is intense and personal for Anderson. Her daughter Bradie is a 14-year-old trans girl who is in the ninth grade. She plays soccer and looks forward to the upcoming season. She began her social transition at age 6, started medical transition when it was first available, and has lived and played sports as a girl since.

“My daughter has never gone through a male puberty,” Anderson said. “She never will go through male puberty. A lot of the young kids coming up now are never going to go through the wrong puberty because they are getting the care they are supposed to.

”I’m mad as hell. She’s one of the only six approved athletes that went through the strict guidelines to be able to play and we’ve through stringent guidelines for her medical care, too. Governor DeWine vetoing the bill and then rewriting policy through the Department of Health only made things worse.”

What began with “saving women’s sports” has spiraled into an ugly return to the past. Trans adults could face medical gatekeeping unseen for decades. Trans youth could see all affirming care criminalized.

Julie Day, Director of Finance for a Columbus-based Kaleidoscope Youth Center and captain for the Columbus Chaos, a local women’s football team, termed the tactics of the proponents' use of sports in this as “cruel and purposeful.”

“They found something they can manipulate to cause harm to another community and keep it as a convenient distraction,” she said. “I don’t like people who are weaponizing the system to hurt other people. This directly targets the youth that we serve.”

Julie Day spoke out as a competitive athlete to call out how the sports issue helped sell legalized discrimination beyond athletics.
Ohio Channel (left) / Columbus Chaos (right)

She noted the seeming surprise on some faces as she took the podium in last month’s hearing in her Chaos team jersey. She also noticed and spoke on the indifference of those seeking to “save” women’s sports to structural issues affecting women’s sports

“These are the same people who’ve ignored women’s sports for years and years” she noted. “Most of these people didn’t even know we had a women’s football team, or that a women’s football team exists. Nonetheless, they want to legislate this down the road. It’s not like they are advocating for equal pay for women or more scholarships or equal facilities.”

Zelch concurred with a memory from her daughter playing in high school.

“If this really is about sports, they’d make sure the girls had equal access to sports,” Zelch said. “The boys had two fields on campus. Our girls had to go to the tee ball field at the elementary school 10 minutes away that would flood with any drops of rain. The boys' baseball field had drainage and ours didn’t.”

Regardless of the results, these and other supporters vow to carry the fight forward even with fears of further measures and an uncertain future for trans people nationwide.

“Whatever they do, we’ll fight it,” Day said. “At the end of history, we’ll win. Will everybody make it there? That’s the part that I’m afraid of. That’s the part that keeps me up at night and that’s the part that makes me sad. Not everyone who should make it to the end will make it to the end.”