A large group gathers at the Montana Capitol on March 15, 2021 during a LGBTQ rally (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).
Advancing one of the session’s most controversial bills, Montana Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to pass House Bill 112 banning transgender female athletes from participating on K-16 women’s sports teams, leaving just one hurdle before it is sent to the governor’s desk.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, would require athletes to participate on the sports team aligning with their assigned sex at birth and was the subject of significant debate in the Senate. It ultimately passed on a 29-21 vote, with two Republicans breaking party lines.
One of the Republicans to part with the majority, Sen. Brian Hoven of Great Falls, said he received several phone calls from parents over the weekend sharing personal stories about their transgender children. He said he doesn’t think transgender people should be punished for being themselves.
“One of the things that we have a difference of opinion on is some people believe that being gay or transgender is a matter of their environment or how they were brought up. But others like me think they were born that way, so therefore, if you are born that way, and that’s the way you are, it’s very difficult for me to vote against those people,” he said.
Additionally, Hoven said he doesn’t believe transgender women participating in K-16 athletics is an issue in Montana. He said if it becomes one, he trusts local education officials can aptly handle it.
While introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, reiterated arguments that the bill is necessary to protect women athletes from being forced to compete against biological males.
Citing Adolf Hitler’s public relations minister, Joseph Goebbels, Regier said, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
He went on to say, “let me give you some contemporary lies. If you’re born white, you’re a racist. Another one: Man can change the climate. Another one: A man can become a woman, or a woman can become a man.”
In hearings on the bill, opponents have pushed back on comments that insinuate transgender women aren’t real women and have said gender is more than just a person’s assigned sex at birth.
Throughout the legislative process, the controversial bill has garnered more opposition than support. LGBTQ and transgender advocates have led the pushback. According to the legislative website, 2,170 calls and messages from the public have asked legislators to oppose the bill, and 973 have asked to support it.
Multiple female athletes showed up to testify against the bill, and more than 100 Montana female collegiate athletes signed a letter opposing it. Additionally, hundreds of Montana businesses signed a letter opposing HB112 along with three other bills they say are discriminatory and would be detrimental to job recruitment and their businesses’ well-being.
House Bill 427, which would limit the ability of doctors to provide gender-affirming care to people who are transgender, passed 7-4 out of committee earlier this month and heads to the Senate floor.
The importance of K-16 sports in character building is something lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree are essential, but they are divided on transgender women’s participation.
Hamilton Republican Sen. Theresa Manzella said she was an outsider growing up. Being a top female athlete in sports gave her a sense of belonging with her peers, which may not have been true had she been competing against transgender women, she said.
She said there are two things she could have envisioned if she was competing against a transgender athlete: “I would have quit, crushed in spirit, and despair, knowing that I couldn’t compete, or two, depending on my age … would I have considered sports enhancement drugs myself and steroids? There’s a good possibility that I would’ve.”
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Helena, said he consulted his daughters, who played high school sports when considering how to vote on the bill. He said they told him the bill was unnecessary and cruel.
“Their bottom line was that a transgender girl in high school had made a really tough decision, and the least we should do is to give them the opportunity to show up as their authentic selves, on the field and the court, and enjoy the benefit of sports,” he said.
In hearings, there have been warnings about the possible economic impact of the bill, including the withdrawal of federal education funding and loss of revenue to communities if the National Collegiate Athletic Association pulls championship sporting events from the state, which it has done in the past to other states when similar legislation is passed.
To mitigate the possible loss, an amendment from Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, would make the act void if the Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education issued a letter of impending enforcement action. The amendment passed 27-23. Salomon ultimately voted against the bill.
The legislation is part of a greater Republican-led effort in legislatures across the country where a record 82 bills aiming to regulate transgender people have been introduced, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“We got Mississippi Arkansas, Tennessee, and there are a lot of other state legislatures that are debating this same type of bill right now as we speak. We add Montana to it, it will send a message that our women are worth a lot more than money,” Regier said in an effort to win over lawmakers who may be worried about the bill’s financial impact.
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