An outdoor basketball hoop is seen in Bethel in October 2022. A bill advanced in the House Education Committee on Wednesday would expand limitations for trans girls on sports teams. (Claire Stremple / Alaska Beacon)

An outdoor basketball hoop is seen in Bethel in October 2022. A bill advanced in the House Education Committee on Wednesday would expand limitations for trans girls on sports teams. (Claire Stremple / Alaska Beacon)

Bills targeting trans people are on the rise nationwide and in Alaska — most focus on children

“I guess we’ll have to go do this again,” Starla Miller said as the committee room cleared.

She was one of dozens of Alaskans who had just testified against a bill that would expand the state’s restrictions on transgender girls’ participation in girls sports. Despite significant opposition, the House Education Committee narrowly voted to advance it.

House Bill 183 is one of five bills currently under consideration by lawmakers that would limit the rights of transgender youth in Alaska. They are part of a broader national trend.

In the last five years, the number of bills that would limit the rights of transgender people in the United States has surged — from a few dozen per year to hundreds.

House Republicans and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have led that effort in Alaska, which has focused on the rights of trans youth in the state’s schools.

So far none of the legislation has become law.

Student sports teams

This year, there are two House bills that would limit Alaska students’ sports participation to teams that match their sex at birth. Twenty-four states have passed such laws.

The governor’s appointees on the state’s Board of Education and Early Development passed a resolution last year that bars transgender girls from participating on high school girls sports teams, after a 2022 proposal to do so failed in the Legislature.

Now, House Bill 183, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, and House Bill 27, sponsored by Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, seek to expand that restriction to all school sports teams, including for elementary-aged children.

Allard is the co-chair of the House Education Committee and her bill had its first hearings there this month. McKay’s similar bill has not yet been heard in committee; he is a co-sponsor of Allard’s bill.

Allard said her bill will protect the rights of women to play sports under Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education. The legislation calls trans women and girls “biological males.”

“If forced to physically compete against biological males, women will be disadvantaged once again. If men can compete as better versions of women, all of our progress for equality is dead,” Allard told the committee.

She invited testimony from Riley Gaines, a University of Kentucky student who was among the women who competed against Lia Thomas, a trans woman who won a national title in swimming in 2022. Gaines is well-known for speaking out against trans women in women’s sports.

Larry Whitmore, a retired teacher and coach from Anchorage and another invited testifier, said he had seen girls lose track and field medals to trans girls and did not think it was fair. He said when trans girls win, it is a “cancer” — “It’s going to spread through women’s sports and destroy them,” he said.

Opponents of the legislation say it would deny equal opportunity to play to trans girls, and reiterated that the bill addresses school-aged children.

Dr. Lindsey Banning, the parent of a trans child, said the bill was “hurtful” and that she would rather see the state address issues like eating disorders, concussions and abuse.

“We’re talking about enshrining discrimination into law to ensure that trans kids can’t play games with their friends and be part of a team,” she said. “Alaskans rejected this idea repeatedly since it was first introduced in 2021, but I guess you want us to do that again.”

Another parent of a trans child, Rebecca Bernard, said that there is a funding crisis in education, not a crisis of LGBTQ youth.

“It’s painful to come and testify these hearings over and over again,” she said. “The vast majority of people who are testifying on these bills targeting trans kids are opposed to the bills, and yet they keep coming.”

Margaret Bergerud, an attorney for the Legislature, advised that the bill may be open to a legal challenge under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which has been used to decide prominent civil rights cases.

“I think it is likely that, at least under the federal Constitution, this bill does not pass constitutional muster for equal protection,” she said.

Bathrooms and pronouns

Another proposal would prohibit transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity in schools. Ten states have passed laws that do so in the last decade.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, sponsored House Bill 382, which would limit bathroom use to the gender assigned to students at birth and require teachers to alert the parents of a student who decides to change their gender pronouns. Advocates for trans rights say this kind of requirement can prevent trans youth from coming out if they think their parents will not approve of their gender identity.

The bill has other provisions, like a requirement that schools be supervised by new committees of parents that would select the principals and that they establish a “teachers bill of rights.”

Randy Griffith of Fairbanks supported the bill and said parents should be notified if their child switches gender pronouns, but did not think teachers should be required to tell parents if a student is considering it.

“The teacher should be just understanding and kind of neutral and listen a little bit,” he said.

Carole Bookless, a Juneau teacher, said she learned how to think about trans students from her kindergarten students.

“I learned that at a very young age, a boy might feel he’s really a girl or a girl may feel she’s really a boy. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The kindergarteners saw it too. They just shrug and accept it. If they can do it, so can we,” she said. “My suggestion is Alaska move in the direction of providing a non-gendered bathroom. And similarly non-gender change room in every school.”

The bill is in a similar vein as legislation Dunleavy proposed last year that would require parents to sign off on any pronoun changes for their child.

House Bill 105 is awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee; its companion, Senate Bill 96, has yet to be scheduled.

Protecting trans rights

The state government does not recognize equal rights for LGBTQ people in many areas of state law in Alaska. The state’s Commission on Human Rights reversed most of the equal rights protections it previously had for sexual orientation and gender identity in 2022 on the advice of Attorney General Treg Taylor.

A proposal from Rep. Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat and a member of the House minority caucus, would reinstate recognition of those rights.

The legislation would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the state. She says it would put Alaska in line with a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits such discrimination in employment.

If passed, the protections could reverse legislation that limits LGBTQ rights in public schools, because it includes protections for government services and accommodations.

The bill is co-sponsored by 14 members of the House minority caucus and three rural majority-caucus members: Reps. Neal Foster, D-Nome; CJ McCormick, D-Bethel; and Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham.

House Bill 99 divided the Republican-led House in an 18-22 vote when Armstrong attempted to have the bill bypass the largely conservative-leaning House Judiciary Committee last year. It has yet to be scheduled.

Armstrong said her office recently resubmitted a request for a hearing in that committee.

“This bill would return to the status quo,” she said on Wednesday. “It would put an end to legalized discrimination in our state.”

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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