Michigan lawmakers clash as state enters national debate over transgender athletes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan bill that would limit transgender high school athletes' ability to compete on girls teams drew fiery debate Tuesday as GOP lawmakers took up a topic that's been in the spotlight across the country.

During a 90-minute committee hearing, supporters argued the legislation was about fairness while opponents called it unnecessary, noting that the Michigan High School Athletic Association says it averages only two inquiries about its transgender policy per year. The state has about 180,000 high school athletes annually.

The policy, which would require athletes to play on teams that align with their "biological sex," would add to the marginalization that transgender students experience at school, said Dr. Maureen Connolly, a Detroit pediatrician who works with transgender youth.

Players hold a Michigan High School Athletic Association championship.

"What are we as adults doing when we are sending this message to young people?" Connolly asked the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee.

But Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, and Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said the bill was about fairness for girls in high school sports.

"To ignore the science of biological outcomes is to ignore reality," said Theis, the chairwoman of the education committee and the sponsor of the proposal.

Runestad discussed a male tennis player who was ranked 203rd in the world but was able to defeat female tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams when they were teenagers.

"He drank some beers. He smoked a pack of cigarettes. He said he played in a languid way, didn't do any preparation," Runestad said. "He defeated both sisters very, very easily.

"If he was transgender, he would have all of their endorsements, all of their money, the top slots on all of the commercials, everything. ... They would never be known."

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, pushed back on Runestad's comments during the hearing. She and others noted that individuals who testified in support of the legislation were from outside of Michigan and examples they cited occurred elsewhere.

"It just dismays me that Sen. Runestad would say that we as a body should be making laws based on no specific examples in our state and based on something that might eventually occur here," Polehanki said. "I hope as a body that's not what we do. This is a solution in search of a problem."

Runestad countered that a "specific example" isn't required to make a law. There are "thousands and thousands" of bills introduced in Michigan in which lawmakers don't have a specific example but participate in the discussion, he said.

Under the bill, if a school designates a team a boys or girls team, participants would only be able to participate if the team matches their "biological sex."

The proposal defines "biological sex" as "the physical condition of being male or female" as identified at birth. The bill says girls competing on girls' high school sports teams "must be female based on biological sex." Likewise, it says boys competing on boys' high school teams "must be male based on biological sex."

Connolly, the Detroit pediatrician, said there are complexities to biological sex that the bill doesn't take into account. The idea that biological sex can easily be determined "doesn't reflect the diversity that exists in the world naturally," she said.

The MHSAA's policy doesn't prohibit girls from participating on boys team. When it comes to transgender females, the association determines eligibility on a case-by-case basis after receiving documentation about the student's school and health records and information on whether the student has begun testosterone suppression therapy or gender-reassignment surgery.

The MHSAA has spoken out against the bill pending in the Michigan Senate.

Theis abruptly adjourned Tuesday's meeting but said the matter would be brought up "again at a different point in time."

Asked if a committee vote could be held later this week, Theis didn't rule it out. Senate Democrats have raised concerns that the full Senate could take up the legislation later this week.

The bill comes amid a national push by Republican lawmakers to ban transgender girls from competing on girls high school sports teams. The American Civil Liberties Union says similar legislation has been introduced this year in more than 30 states.

Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who sponsored a proposal that became law in her state, was among those who spoke Tuesday in support of the Michigan bill. She argued that allowing a single biological male to compete on a female team would be a slippery slope.

"It won't be that long in the future where you're going to have 12 biological males try out for that girls team," she said. "When all 12 of those biological males make the team, my question to everyone is: Where do all of the girls go?"

At least temporarily, a federal judge blocked Idaho's law last year, saying it stood "in stark contrast to the policies of elite athletic bodies that regulate sports both nationally and globally," according to the Associated Press.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said the Republican bill in Michigan wouldn't help the state.

"Ultimately, what this bill is doing is telling the trans community that you have no space here," Moss said. "I fully reject that."

To become law, the proposal would have to pass the Senate and House, which are both GOP controlled, and gain the signature of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, which is unlikely.