Last spring, a bill was introduced in the Michigan State Senate that would ban transgender students from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. Now, with the same goal in mind, House Republicans are joining their Senate colleagues with a provision to the School Aid Budget that would “prohibit boys from competing in girls’ athletic activities.”
The House Appropriations Committee late Wednesday, May 4 approved the School Aid Budget proposal, House Bill 5795, along party lines.
“I received the budget late in the day on Monday, and we saw that that boilerplate language was inserted in the last minute,” said Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park), a member of the Appropriations Committee and minority vice chair of the subcommittee. She was referring to the conditions that must be met in order for the funds to be appropriated. However, the Governor may declare a provision unconstitutional or unenforceable.
“We know that the real motivation behind this is to prevent transgender girls from being able to play sports,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, “and we saw the proponents of the Senate bill last year…never referred to transgender girls as girls. They were ‘biological males;’ they were ‘biological boys.’”
The reasoning for the provision put forth by Rep. Thomas Albert, chair of the Appropriations Committee — that transgender girls have an unfair athletic advantage over cisgender girls — has not been borne out in fact. Myths that transgender girls are not “real” girls or that transgender students belong on their own sports teams are likewise untrue.
Weiss doesn’t accept Rep. Albert’s argument. “He literally said, ‘Because boys are stronger than girls, it is not fair,’” Weiss said. “That was sort of the argument that he made, and that girls could potentially lose out on scholarship opportunities. There’s just no evidence of that happening right now in our state, in our country.”
Further, barring transgender students from playing on the sports team that aligns with their gender identity brings a host of legal issues into play, said Kaplan. “Certainly, it would be discriminatory against trans kids,” he said. “It would raise equal protection issues under the Constitution, because you’re singling out a group of people for discriminatory treatment by the government at public schools.”
Weiss responded to what she called “false arguments.” “All it does is attack and further marginalize one of the most vulnerable groups of children in our schools to score political points, which I think is frankly disgusting and abhorrent,” she said.
Weiss is not only a lawmaker; she is also a former educator for Detroit Public Schools who has taught transgender students in her classroom.
“It breaks my heart,” Weiss said. “I know from my personal experience, and also just from being educated about the matter and reading about it, that our trans students are one of the most vulnerable groups. They have much higher rates of suicide and mental health issues, and to do anything that would further attack and bully and marginalize them is completely unacceptable. It really, really upsets me to my core as a teacher, but also just as a human being, that anyone would try to do that for any reason. It’s unacceptable.”
In terms of tactics, Weiss said it was “particularly inappropriate” to enact policy by using the budgeting process.
The number of students who would be affected by this provision is unknown, but it is extremely low. Population-based survey data from 19 states and 10 urban school districts including Detroit found that 1.8 percent of high school students identify as transgender. Until now, the Michigan High School Athletic Association has had a process to review transgender student athletes and their eligibility in their sports. But the complaints are not emanating from that group. And Kaplan says they didn’t originate in Michigan.
“All the stuff that they’re doing, this is not an organic type of legislation or policy that’s just coming out of the Michigan Legislature,” Kaplan said. “This is at the national level. Some conservatives’ think tank group has said, ‘Hey, here’s policies to introduce in your state. It’s gonna help us get our base out to vote in November; it’s gonna help you raise money.’ They don’t give a damn about a transgender kid or the damage that they could do.”
In fact, bills with language similar to the provision have been, and are being, introduced in state legislatures across the country. Two weeks ago, Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that empowers an athletic oversight committee to exclude transgender students from playing high school sports.
The Senate School Aid Budget proposal did not include the transphobic provision. But even if that language finds its way into the final bill, both Weiss and Kaplan are confident Gov. Whitmer won’t sign any legislation that would harm the LGBTQ+ community.
“The good news is, we’re only a few months away from another election,” Weiss said, “and so I’m hoping that the voters will go out strong to the polls and show up in opposition to a lot of this hatred that we’ve seen in the Republican Party. I’m hopeful that we’ll have an opportunity to flip both the House and the Senate and see a very, very different legislature come January.”
Kaplan is looking forward to November as well.
“When does it stop?” Kaplan asked. “It only stops when voters say, ‘No, that’s enough. We don’t want this. This is not right. We’re not about this.’ I was so pleased by the state Senator Mallory McMorrow who [recently] said, ‘You know what? I’m white, I’m straight, I’m a woman, I’m married, I live in the suburbs and I’m a Christian. And you do not speak for me.’”