Protecting women or a transphobic agenda in new sport participation bills? 

By: - March 3, 2021 6:49 am
Row of transgender pride flags along a curb

Trans Pride flags | Ted Eytan via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

To kick-off March as Women’s History Month, three Republican lawmakers — Rep. Barb Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc), Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) and Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) — introduced bills purporting to “protect women in sports” from men competing against them, putting them in physical jeopardy and creating an unfair advantage, as the legislators described it.

News conference on sports participation by biological gender via WisEye on 3/2/21
News conference on sports participation by biological gender via WisEye on 3/2/21

What the two bills would do, counter Democrats, is to prevent transgender student athletes from participating in most school sports. Unless the team is labeled as “coed” the bills would require an athlete to register under the biological sex assigned to them at birth. One bill addresses K-12 teams, while the other targets collegiate sports.

“It’s an issue of standing for women’s achievement, not cutting anyone out of women’s achievement,” said Dittrich in a Capitol press conference on Tuesday. Asked if progressive women would support it, she claimed she knows she has colleagues who will. But that’s not the response any progressive colleagues offered.

Rep. Greta Neubauer speaks at a 2019 Pride Festival event. (Photo courtesy of Neubauer.)
Rep. Greta Neubauer speaks at a 2019 Pride Festival event. (Photo courtesy of Neubauer.)

“Today, the Assembly GOP released legislation designed to target and discriminate against transgender student athletes,” said Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine). “This legislation is cruel and discriminatory and will cause further harm to children who are already under attack for simply being themselves.” 

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which advocates for LGBTQ rights, counted seven states with anti-transgender bills, including similar sports participation bills, by mid-February. Its website states that Idaho, the only state that has passed such legislation, swiftly saw the law suspended in court, and the NCAA came out against the bill.

“This effort is being driven by national far-right organizations attempting to sow fear and hate,” writes HRC’s Wyatt Ronan. “Opposing equality is highly unpopular — even among Trump voters — and states that pass legislation that attacks our community will face severe economic, legal, and reputational harm. In many cases, these legislative pushes are being prioritized above COVID-19 response and relief.”

Prioritizing such bills before passing necessary pandemic relief was one of the charges legislative Democrats levied against the Republicans pushing the Wisconsin bills.

Today’s Republican attacks on transgender youth and children in Wisconsin continue a deeply disturbing trend of legislators seeking to limit the rights and opportunities of LGBTQ+ youth in their schools,” said a statement put out by the LGBTQ caucus legislators. “All young people, including transgender or intersex athletes, should have the right and the opportunity to participate in organized, school-sponsored athletics consistent with their gender identity.”


Members of the Wisconsin LGBTQ caucus of legislators, who signed the statement, are: Reps. Neubauer, Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton), Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee).

“This proposed legislation is cruel and discriminatory and will cause further harm to children who are already under attack for simply being themselves,” the statement from the five legislators continued. “This legislation is a blatant attempt to codify discrimination and perpetuate damaging, inaccurate, and deeply offensive stereotypes against trans youth, and discriminate against a group of young people who simply wish to apply their best selves in a sport they are passionate about.” 

Rep. Barb Dittrich and Rep. Janel Brandtjen | WisEye

During the news conference hosted by Dettrich and Brandtjen (Bernier was unavailable), a reporter asked why they were forwarding this legislation when Gov. Tony Evers was unlikely to ever sign such bills.

“If the governor truly is for women, why would he not sign something like this?” asked Dettrich. “So I think if the governor really cares about women, he absolutely should advance this legislation. There should be no reason why it doesn’t go nowhere (sic) unless he’s a sexist.”  

Brandtjen jumped in, telling the reporter she was shocked by his question and switched the topic to President Joe Biden signing an executive order, presumably his order on combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, saying, “I think Joe Biden not only overstepped his authority with an executive order; I think it was the most discriminatory thing that you could do to women in the United States.”

Dittrich then added, “Don’t forget, we’re talking about records, scholarships, advancements here. And so, to cut those things out — you know it sends women far backwards, pre-1960s, and women are not going to stand for that. We’ve come too far in this nation to endure that.”

Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director Cathryn Oakley labeled the GOP bills as part of an “unprecedented surge of anti-transgender legislation” that has been introduced despite a lack of problems related to trans-inclusive policies in the NCAA and Olympics, which she said have been in place for years. 

HRC records indicate similar anti-trans sports team bills have been introduced in Georgia and Tennessee, and passed the Mississippi state Senate and the North Dakota House.

“Lawmakers’ suggestion that student athletes are trying to game the system for competitive advantage is nonsensical and impractical. It simply does not happen,” said Oakley in a statement. “Their goal is to use these states to advance their hateful agenda and this legislative push is being made without much care for the economic, legal and reputational consequences these states might face in the wake of their passage.”

Julaine Appling | WisEye 3/2/21
Julaine Appling | WisEye

Speaking in favor of the bills alongside Brandtjen and Dettrich was Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, who is best known in the Capitol for her lobbying against abortion. As a six-foot basketball player in high school, she said the bill “affords women a level, fair playing field” to prevent a “biological male” from beating her, which she said would have been “disheartening” and “maddening.” She added, “That’s what this bill is about. It’s about protecting the progress, quite frankly.”

Rep. Melissa Sargent
Sen. Melissa Agard

Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) looked at the legislation and saw the opposite of progress, accusing the authors of using trans-youth as political pawns to divide communities. “The shocking intolerance of the actions taken today by legislative Republicans shows their inability to exercise compassion or empathy for those who do not fit their narrative,” said Agard. “Trans-women are women. Protecting women and girls in sports means making sure that all women and girls are welcome in sports and feel safe to participate in them.”

Joining the Democrats in labeling it an attack on LGBTQ youth, Jessica Katzenmeyer, an activist from West Allis, stated: “As an openly transgender woman, I am very disappointed to continually see these attacks on transgender boys and girls in our public schools trying to prohibit them from participating with the gender they identify as. This proposed legislation does not help or protect anyone or do any good at all.”

Gov. Tony Evers’ only immediate response to the bill was the following tweet:

It reads: My message to Wisconsin’s transgender kids and students today is simple: I see you. You are welcome, you are wanted, and you belong.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.