Senate tables restrictive transgender sports bill

Bill unlikely to become law this session

The Alaska State Senate tabled a bill Wednesday prohibiting transgender athletes from competing as the sex they identify with in youth sports, which faced strong resistance from Democrats.

Senate Democrats submitted dozens of amendments to Senate Bill 140 from Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, in an effort to change the bill in various ways, citing issues with privacy and compliance with Title IX regulations.

Floor debate on the bill began Tuesday evening after a full day of debate on the state’s budget bill, and the bill was taken up again Wednesday afternoon. Tuesday evening, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, first submitted an amendment removing the bill entirely and simply stating that local school boards had the authority to set the policy for their districts.

“People feel extremely passionate about this issue,” Wielechowski said Tuesday evening. “This is where this decision should be made. Local communities elect those members to the school board, we shouldn’t be micromanaging a local decision.”

[Senate OKs budget that includes over $5k in payments to Alaskans]

The vote on that amendment resulted in an even 10-10 vote in the Senate with two Republicans — Sens. Natasha von Imhof, Anchorage, and Bert Stedman, Sitka, — joining the eight Senate Democrats, but tie votes are not enough to pass an amendment.

Hughes said Tuesday a statewide policy was necessary because districts compete against each other, and the state should not have a “checkerboard” approach to regulation.

On Wednesdays, amendments addressed technical aspects of the bill such as children’s privacy and would have required the Department of Education and Early Development to conduct an annual study to see if sections of the bill increased suicide and self-harm among students. Speaking against the bill, Democrats cited a recent survey from the Trevor Project — a national LGBTQ organization — which found that nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide and LGBTQ youth of color reported higher rates than their white peers.

A 2020 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that LGBTQ youth have higher rates of suicide and self-harm, with roughly 85% of transgender adolescents reporting seriously considering suicide and over half of transgender adolescents attempting suicide.

Wielechowski, a lawyer, also argued provisions in the bill would leave school districts vulnerable to lawsuits.

“There is a 100% chance that a lawsuit will occur,” Wielechowski said.

Hughes and other defenders of the bill argued that many of the issues raised by Democrats such as children’s privacy are already addressed by federal law and that the bill was needed to ensure girls sports remained competitive.

During debate Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-East River, — a co-sponsor of the bill — asked to be excused from the call of the Senate for the day, saying she was not feeling well, but that she may feel well enough to return later. Her request was granted, after which Hughes asked the bill be tabled, which passed without objection. The Senate then recessed to the call of the chair.

If passed by the Senate, bill will go to the House of Representatives, and with a week left in the legislative session, it’s unlikely the bill will pass out of the Legislature. Because this year is an election year, the bill will have to begin the legislative process from the beginning in the next legislative session.

In an email, Juneau School District spokesperson Kristen Bartlett said the district has a nondiscrimination clause and currently allows all students to participate in district-sponsored athletics in a manner consistent with their gender identity.

“Our school district is currently home to a diverse student population, including transgender and gender-nonconforming students,” Bartlett said. “It is the goal of the district to create a safe and supportive learning environment that provides access to all learning opportunities for every student, including participating in extracurricular activities.”

The district’s policies allow for transgender and gender-nonconforming students and employees to meet with the site administrator to discuss needs such as “the name and pronoun desired by the student/employee, restroom and locker room use, participation in athletics, dress code, student/employee transition plans, if any, and other needs or requests of the student/employee.”

The district keeps both the legal and birth name and gender of students and employees but that information is kept confidential under local, state and federal laws, according to the district’s policies.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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