L.G.B.T. activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall, October 24, 2018 in New York City.
Drew Angerer—Getty Images
By Katy Steinmetz
April 2, 2019

Republicans took aim at a broad LGBT rights bill on Tuesday by focusing on a narrow topic: school sports.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity like existing civil rights laws do on the basis of characteristics such as race and religion. Though the bill is sweeping — covering areas that range from credit to housing to employment — much of the debate at the hearing centered on athletics.

The issue of transgender students participating in sports has proved a flash point in arguments about the legal rights of LGBT people, as lawmakers have debated the very nature of sex and gender. In opposing the bill, Republicans used sports as means to argue that “biological men” could use non-discrimination protections in order to take advantage of “biological women” in various spheres of life, including the playing field.

“The bill privileges the rights of men who identify as women over women and girls,” said ranking Republican Rep. Doug Collins. “Allowing men to compete against women in women’s sports… is demoralizing.” Rep. Louie Gohmert suggested that women would lose athletic scholarships to “guys who say, ‘I feel like I am a woman.'” One witness Republicans called predicted that passing the bill would mean that “men will dominate women’s sports.”

Though school sports are not mentioned in the Equality Act — and it does not amend Title IX, the provision that famously outlaws sex discrimination in education — the bill would alter existing civil rights statutes that apply to educational settings, giving transgender students a legal basis to argue that they have a right to compete on teams that align with their gender identity.

Democrats and several of the witnesses they called cast GOP objections over sports as a red herring, distracting from the fact that federal laws do not explicitly prohibit firing people because they are gay or denying them housing because they are transgender. They pointed out that several states have laws which have for years prohibited such discrimination and have not seen women or girls widely displaced in sports in those places.

Rep. Val Demings described Republicans’ focus on sports as “looking for a technicality to continue to justify discrimination” against LGBT people more broadly.

“America just cannot seem to get past tearing other people down who are different in some way,” Demings said. “Our past is so ugly in this area. I would think that we would all do everything within our power to make it right.”

As the issue of sports resurfaced throughout the hearing, some of the bill’s critics argued that having exposure to testosterone would give transgender girls and women an unfair advantage in sports, while others alleged that “bad actors” would pretend to be transgender in order to get ahead.

This line of reasoning extended into several other areas, with Republican lawmakers suggesting that men might falsely claim to identify as a woman in order to secure grants reserved for female-led businesses or to gain access to sex-segregated spaces like bathrooms and shelters.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that such fears are not backed up by data, and that transgender people are at higher risk than the general population for experiencing harassment and sexual assault. “We do not create policy about myths and stereotypes,” said Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center. She characterized many of the criticisms as suggestions that transgender people do not “exist.”

Lawmakers and LGBT rights advocates have been trying to pass a bill like the Equality Act since the 1970s. In the early years, such bills only covered sexual orientation and faced objections from conservatives who characterized being gay as an “abomination.” In recent years, the issue of transgender rights has ascended as an area of conflict between the right and the left, and relatively little time at the hearing on Tuesday was spent discussing sexual orientation.

It’s likely that the bill will pass the Democrat-controlled House in the coming months, but the debate was a preview of issues that will come to the fore if the bill is eventually brought up for a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. Some conservative lawmakers suggested that being transgender is part of an “internet phenomenon” or “radical ideology,” and even those who expressed support for transgender people did not express support for the bill as it is written.

Toward the end of the hearing, the one openly transgender individual among the witnesses attempted to sum up the three hours of discussion that had elapsed. “We’ve heard a lot about transgender people as a threat, in the bathroom, in sports,” said Carter Brown, who leads an organization called Black Transmen Inc. “My identity is not a threat to anyone else. As it stands, it’s a threat to me and my ability to provide for myself and my family.”

Without federal non-discrimination laws that explicitly protect LGBT people, “it’s not a level playing field,” he said.

Write to Katy Steinmetz at katy.steinmetz@time.com.

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