House GOP embraces attack on trans athletes in women’s sports

Rep. Greg Steube (Fla.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Greg Steube (Fla.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) are among a growing number of Republicans who have thrown their support behind banning transgender women from participating in women’s sports.

House Republicans are zeroing in on federal restrictions on transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, the latest indication that the priority issue for social conservatives is becoming a GOP litmus test. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently threw his support behind a bill to define sex “solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth” for purposes of Title IX in athletics and pledged during a press conference last month to bring it up for a vote in the next Congress if Republicans win the House majority.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) introduced the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act in the House last year, and it was championed by the conservative Republican Study Committee. 

Increased press coverage of trans athletes succeeding in women’s athletic competitions, such as former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, has contributed to increased support for his bill, Steube said. 

McCarthy hosted a roundtable last month that highlighted athletes who competed against trans competitors, during which he warned that girls and women are facing an “existential threat from radical [activists].” 

“As more and more of these incidents are occurring across the country, I think it’s brought more attention to the issue,” Steube said of growing support for his bill, noting that tennis legend Martina Navratilova is among those advocating for banning trans athletes in elite women’s sports. 

“Congress needs to protect women’s sports because if you have biological men competing in tennis, obviously somebody like Martina Navratilova is not going to be as successful on the tennis court as she used to be,” he added. 

A discharge petition to bring the bill to the House floor has 187 signatures, with 218 needed to force a vote. Though it is unlikely that the bill will get any Democratic support, which it would need to reach the 218 threshold, stated support from 89 percent from the GOP conference sends a signal that it is a major priority for Republicans. A Senate version of the bill introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has 24 GOP co-sponsors.

“I’m confident that this will remain a priority for our conference after 2022,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

But not all of those concerned about trans athletes in sports support the Steube bill or approach. Donna de Varona, a former Olympic swimmer and longtime advocate for Title IX protections for women in sports, says it goes too far.

“It’s become a wedge issue. And, you know, our group really wants a middle ground,” said de Varona, who is a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group. 

“We really want to hold up inclusion in sports because of the values it teaches us. But we also want to look at science-based policy, research-based policies that protect the safety and fairness of sports, but also finds a way to include participation.”

Transgender rights advocates have widely criticized policies excluding trans athletes, who they say should not be discriminated against and denied the positive benefits that come with participating in sports.

The issue was not always so popular among Republicans.

Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project, said he has seen a major shift among Republicans in issues like banning trans athletes from women’s sports. 

Some Republicans argued as recently as 2020 that it was more effective to stay focused on other issues, fearing a political backlash like the waves of outrage about the 2016 “bathroom bill” in North Carolina banning transgender individuals from using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. 

“We were having a hard time getting Trump to say anything about it,” Schilling said. “You fast forward to today, and it’s a litmus test for being a Republican, and it’s a litmus test for being able to rise to the national stage.”

But focusing on women’s sports, rather than policies that affect all trans people, appears to be a different calculation for Republicans.

Former President Trump is now among the GOP figures leaning into the issue. He said in a January rally that if he decides to run for reelection and wins, he will ban transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports. At a Friday rally in Alaska, Trump again railed against trans athletes in women’s sports.

Eighteen GOP-controlled states have enacted laws restricting trans student participation in sports, nearly all within the last two years.

GOP members of Congress also regularly show hostility to transgender-inclusive policies and language by challenging witnesses in hearings on the definition of a “woman.” In a Tuesday Senate hearing on abortion, Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges rebuked Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) for what she called a transphobic line of questioning.

Schilling also noted that four Republican members of Congress — Reps. Jefferson Van Drew (N.J), Claudia Tenney (N.Y.), Elise Stefanik (N.Y) and Chris Jacobs (N.Y.) — have removed themselves as co-sponsors of the Fairness for All Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in places of public accommodation and other institutions, while making exceptions for certain religious organizations.

In addition to more press coverage, part of that shift may be a reflection of activism. The American Principles Project spent millions of dollars in 2020 on ad campaigns highlighting transgender issues, such as trans athletes in women’s sports and minors being allowed puberty-blocking treatments and other procedures.

“Our theory was basically, if you inject these issues into politics, campaigns and elections, if you run campaign ads on them and show Republicans that they can win on this and that there is a dedicated political operation to protecting you and helping you on these issues, the issue will move very quickly, very fast,” Schilling said. 

“It’s gone even more successful than I could have imagined.”

Tags Chris Jacobs claudia tenney Donald Trump Elise Stefanik Greg Steube Jefferson Van Drew Jim Banks Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Lia Thomas Mike Lee

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