Mar 08, 2023

Texas Republicans Look to Expand Restrictions on Trans Athletes to College

Reporting Texas

An effort by the Texas Legislature to restrict transgender athletes at the collegiate level would require them to compete on teams matching their biological sex. Ry Olszewski/Reporting Texas

As the referee raised Mack Beggs’ fist in the air to recognize Begg’s second state high school wrestling title in as many years, a cacophony of cheers and boos rained down from the rafters.

Beggs, a transgender male and former Euless Trinity High School student was the subject of an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary after he won consecutive 6A girls wrestling state championships in 2017 and 2018. Beggs, who was assigned female at birth but transitioned to male as an adolescent, was required by the University Interscholastic League, which oversees sports in Texas public schools, to compete in the girl’s division. 

Begg’s situation made national headlines and highlighted an increasingly fraught fight in Texas over sexuality and gender identity.

Now, five years after Begg’s last state championship, Texas Republicans — who passed a law in 2021 banning transgender athletes from competing on K-12 sports teams that match their gender identity —  are working to extend restrictions on transgender athletes to college sports.

House Bill 23, by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, would prohibit transgender public college students from joining college sports teams that align with their gender identity. The bill stipulates that athletes participate on teams based on the “biological sex” listed on their birth certificate. The measure would allow women to compete on men’s teams if there is no corresponding women’s team available.

“The Legislature has no business determining the rules of sports programs,” Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, said in a statement to Reporting Texas. 

“Organizations like the NCAA and UIL have worked with experts to determine what is fair for all participants. We wouldn’t want politicians regulating the size of football fields, and we shouldn’t want politicians regulating who can play sports,” Talarico said.

Pride flags hang outside The Little Gay Shop in Austin, Texas, which has seen the number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed in the Texas legislature skyrocket, with over 30 bills this session, according to Equality Texas. Ry Olszewski/Reporting Texas

Brian Klosterboer is a staff attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s not administrable or workable in any way,” Klosterboer said. “The term ‘biological sex’ is not defined in law.”

Swanson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Each of the other 11 active members of the far-right Texas Freedom Caucus, who have all signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Some proponents view the measure as being essential to protecting women in amateur athletics. 

Matt Sharp is senior counsel member for Alliance Defending Freedom, “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family,” according to the organization’s website.  

“There is still more work to be done to provide comprehensive protections for Texas’s female athletes, particularly those in college,” Sharp said in a statement to Reporting Texas. 

“Alliance Defending Freedom represents female collegiate athletes from several states who personally experienced disappointment and loss when males were permitted to compete in women’s sports,” Sharp wrote. 

“The truth is that biology matters at all ages,” he added.

Supporters of the bill have dubbed it the “Save Women’s Sports Act.” Professor Michael Butterworth, director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media at The University of Texas at Austin, said that language is disingenuous.

“If legislators are really interested in helping and promoting girls’ and women’s athletics, there are a lot of things they could be doing structurally that they have never paid any attention to in terms of equity of resources [and] in terms of responding to abusive patterns of behavior from coaches toward girls and women,” Butterworth said.

Ash Hall, an LGBTQ+ activist, stands in the Texas State Capitol Annex rotunda during a visit to pressure lawmakers to kill HB23 on Feb. 9, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Ry Olsweski/Reporting Texas

Ash Hall, a policy and advocacy strategist on LGBTQ+ rights, said the measure is a misplaced attack on Texans who identify as transgender. 

“There’s a growing mistrust of trans people, an assumption of danger and opportunism, towards taking advantage of cisgender women,” Hall said. “It’s kind of this fear-mongering circle where people keep coming up with more outrageous ideas of what it means to be trans.”

Johnathan Gooch, communications director for Equality Texas, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy advocacy organization that works to eliminate discrimination targeting the LGTBQ+ community, said the bill doesn’t reflect the way most Texans feel about the LGBTQ+ community.

“The people that you meet every day, really do care about their neighbors, and they don’t want anyone to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Gooch said.

Ash Hall speaks with Zanir Ali, chief-of-staff for Texas Rep. Jessica González, during a visit to the Capitol in February. Hall has built a web of relationships with many representatives and staffers for over a decade, working independently and with Equality Texas around LGBTQ+ issues. Ry Olszewski/Reporting Texas

Approximately 0.4% of Texans identify as transgender according to a 2022 study from the  Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Beggs, who went on to wrestle collegiately at Life University in Marietta, Georgia, said ignorance is behind the measure. 

“[Transgenderism] challenges your biological, sexual and social economic beliefs. That’s why you’re challenging it,” Beggs said. “You’re challenging it because you don’t understand it.”