Why Even Democrats Are Going Wobbly on Trans Rights in Sports

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As a 30-second piece of propaganda, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ latest campaign ad is a work of art. The dew on the soccer field is fresh, disrupted only by passes between his daughter and her teammates. The sun rises over the treeline. The soundtrack mimics an NFL gameday hype mix. Emma Reeves has solid foot skills, lands a strong penalty kick in the net, and it’s clear the rising junior is chasing a spot on a college team. 

“She works so hard at her game, early in the morning until late at night. She’s not hoping for a scholarship; she’s earning it, like thousands of girls her age all over America,” says Reeves, the only GOP incumbent Governor with even the slightest risk of losing his race next year. “But now, political radicals are trying to ruin women’s sports, letting biological men get the opportunities meant for women. We have to draw the line here in Mississippi.”

As a practical matter, Reeves already has drawn such a line—with his signature. In fact, he was the second Governor in the country to sign a bill in 2021 banning transgender student athletes from joining teams that match their gender identity, and instead forcing them to play on teams that match the gender assigned to them at birth. Since then, 20 others states have followed suit, and the imagined scourge of trans women and girls playing on women’s and girls’ sports teams has become one of the last remaining corners of anti-LGBTQ policy that isn’t a total political loser.

Since 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage rights extend nationally, there has been a massive shift in public opinion in favor of LGBTQ rights, to marry and simply live as their neighbors do— one that occurred faster than any other attitude change in a century. (No, really; the quantitative science on the opinion shifts isn’t even up for debate. This one was at breakneck speed.) 

But there is one notable caveat: sports teams. Locker rooms are the last remaining locale where most Americans hold onto opinions that don’t wholly embrace LGBTQ rights. A survey in May found that 69% of Americans say trans athletes should only play on teams that conform with their birth gender, an increase from two years ago when 62% of Americans said the same in a Gallup survey. At the same time, the share of Americans who said trans athletes should play on the teams of their choosing has fallen from 34% to 26% in the same period. Those findings track with a 2022 Pew survey on the topic. In that report, 58% of Americans said trans athletes should play on a team that matches their gender assigned at birth. Compare that to the share of Americans who support same-sex marriage, which now is at 63%.

Put another way, many Americans seem to think the issue of which jersey to don looks more like a question of competitive fairness than civil rights. After all, majorities have said clearly they are against discrimination against trans individuals. Pew’s number from last year finds 64% support for nondiscrimination laws protecting trans individuals’ rights to housing, jobs, and services.

But on the soccer pitch, these respondents are looking at their kids and wanting a fair shot. It’s not that they’ve bought the bogus and hateful notions that trans people are so-called “groomers” or are looking to invade locker rooms for sexual perversion. But as Reeves put it, there’s a sense that their kids are getting a raw deal.

And here’s the thing that stands out from an electoral point of view: even Democrats are trending away from allowing trans athletes to pick their bench. Although Democrats are far more supportive of that position—47% of Democrats versus 10% of Republicans—that position has faded over the last two years. In 2021 when the question was asked, 55% of Democrats favored letting the trans kids pick their team. But now, on the question of requiring the students to play on teams matching their gender assigned at birth, Democrats have seen their support for that position grow from 41% to a 48% plurality over the past two years. 

Among independents, the trends line up: a 33-63 split toward inclusion in 2021 is now a 28-67 construct today.

And for Republicans, there is a nagging sense that things are going too far toward inclusion of trans individuals. The Washington Post has a smart visualization of that climb here.

In sum: trans rights are getting left behind in the hardening allyship for the broader LGBTQ rights movement, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the field.

Back in April, the Biden Administration proposed a rule that would, in some cases, allow schools that receive federal dollars to require students’ gender identity at birth to match their team assignments, especially as play becomes more competitive and students’ hormone levels may give some athletes an advantage. The proposal argued against blanket bans; table tennis and basketball, for instance, reward different physical skills. It didn’t sit entirely well among LGBTQ activists, but it was far better than anything they expected to find under a Republican administration.

Nationally, 22 states now have anti-trans sports laws on the books, according to the Movement Advancement Project that tracks such legislation. Sixteen of the laws cover everything from kindergarten to college, while five states phase in when teams start to become competitive, as early as fifth grade. Only Utah covers student athletes in K-12, but not college.

To be clear: there’s been a whole lot of legislating perceived solutions for problems that don’t exist. Most of the cases identified by those pushing such bans center on elite athletes like those participating in college sports. The NCAA’s position, which defers to the national governing body of each sport where possible and eventually looks at compatibility with Olympic standards for every team, pits fairness against inclusion, a microcosm of the broader debate that has  become a political litmus test.

It’s worth remembering this fact, too: the population under discussion is relatively small. According to the Williams Institute, about 1.3 million adults and 300,000 young Americans identify as trans in a nation of 330 million. The best estimate is that of the roughly 200,000 women playing college sports in any academic year, we are talking about 50 trans athletes.

Even so, the U.S. House in April passed a standalone bill—shorter in length than this newsletter—that would require trans athletes to stick with the team matching their identity when they first left the hospital in car seats. It will go nowhere in the Senate, and if by some miracle it got through, President Joe Biden has said he would veto it.

Republicans are also trying to add amendments to the upcoming spending bills that include anti-trans, anti-diversity, and anti-”woke” language, complicating an already perilous path to the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Culture war fights are seldom won—or lost—based on facts. Emotions run the table here. And that’s why, from Mississippi to both coasts, Republicans are leaning into these transgender messaging bills, which have taken their place next to anti-abortion bills as vehicles to gin up hard-right voters. 

Few actual trophies are in question, but the message they’re sending to trans kids is undeniable. A National Institutes of Health report last year found 82% of trans individuals have contemplated suicide and 40% have attempted it. Rates are highest among kids.But none of that seems to matter to certain politicians, either in the Reeves ad or beyond. Even Democrats are starting to shed some of their dogma on inclusion here, especially when it’s their daughters’ college prospects on the line. With the boogeymen of “groomers” receding, fears of family implosions proving unfounded, and no county clerk office morphing into Sodom and Gomorrah over same-sex marriage licenses, the culture warriors need a battlefield. For the moment, that field is a dew-laden practice plain in Mississippi. But that’s highly unlikely to be the only one going forward.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com