Transgender Day of Visibility amid the ‘Dark Ages’ of public policy

By: - March 31, 2021 7:00 am
Eye with shadow in the colors of the transgender flag

Photo by Kyle on Unsplash

Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) authored a resolution proclaiming March 31 as Wisconsin’s Transgender Day of Visibility to “acknowledge, celebrate, and elevate transgender and nonbinary people across the world and in Wisconsin.”

In the Wisconsin Legislature, there are currently two pending bills that were introduced by Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) and Sen. Kathy Bernier (R- Chippewa Falls) that would prevent transgender women and girls from playing sports — one targets high school students, the other collegiate athletes. They call them the Protecting Women in Sports Act.

Women's Sports Participation news conference | WisEye 3/3/21
Women’s Sports Participation news conference | WisEye 3/3/21

“Now, in a fractured, well-meaning attempt at inclusion, women’s achievements have once again been put at great risk of loss,” said Dittrich announcing her bills at a news conference on March 3. “Biological females are losing opportunities at titles, records, scholarships and even participation, at times. Additionally … women are being put in physical danger of greater injury in competition.”

Gov. Tony Evers’ spokesperson said he will veto the sports participation bills, should they come to his desk.

Carpenter says his resolution was timed to coincide with the international Transgender Visibility Day date, not as a reaction to the GOP anti-transgender bills. However, he finds the fact that Wisconsin has joined a growing list of more than two-dozen states considering similar bills — including three that were signed into law in the past week — to be proof that debating his resolution is necessary to counter misinformation and biases, although he is not optimistic about its chances of reaching the state Senate floor. 

“We’ve just entered into these Dark Ages of public policy and how we treat people,” says Carpenter, citing the resolution honoring Rush Limbaugh that recently passed in the Legislature, along with transgender bathroom bills and similar divisive policies, including election laws meant to restrict voting. These measures appeal to the conservative base on a simplistic level rather than talking about complex issues like the economy. 

Sen. Tim Carpenter | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. Tim Carpenter | Wisconsin Eye

“I just think it’s part of the Republican politics of our day …that they can go to the gut emotions relying on people’s fears to move forward. And that’s not an agenda for democracy, that’s basically splitting people up.”

The Transgender Day resolution has been sitting in the Senate’s organizational committee since March 16, and could be scheduled at any point if Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and the committee want to do so. LeMahieu’s office did not respond to a question on whether he would consider taking it up. Acting separately, Evers proclaimed March 31st, 2021 as International Transgender Day of Visibility in Wisconsin. 

National groups working on this issue are witnessing the explosion of anti-transgender bills that are being copied across more than half of all states. Advocates say the measures are not arising from a public outcry to keep trans students out of sports. 

This unprecedented surge of anti-transgender legislation is not being demanded by constituents,” says Human Rights Campaign (HRC) State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel Cathryn Oakley. Legislators in several states have openly admitted that there is no problem happening in their states that needs addressing. We know this because trans-inclusive policies have been in place for the NCAA and the Olympics for years. Lawmakers’ suggestion that student athletes are trying to game the system for competitive advantage is nonsensical and impractical. It simply does not happen.”

Copycat bills

The Wisconsin bills mimic anti-trans athlete bills in other states — the ACLU has identified more than 60 bills in 28 states and that list is growing and has yet to include Wisconsin. Many other states have such bills in the pipeline — Idaho passed a similar law in 2020, that has been enjoined in federal court.

It’s part of a coordinated attack on transgender people, particularly youth, many of whom are already struggling, being bullied and considering suicide. In the past week, the governors of Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas all signed similar bills into law.

Comparisons between legislation in various states show identical phrases and sections of legislation, that advocacy groups say show the bills are part of a coordinated, transphobic attack.

By March, the year 2021 had already shattered the record for the number of anti-transgender bills introduced in state legislatures nationwide in any year past. Last year saw a record 79 bills. By mid-March, the number for 2021 was 82. In addition to sports participation bills, there are medical care bans. On Monday, Arkansas passed a bill — labeled by the ACLU as the most extreme anti-transgender bill to ever pass in the country — banning gender-affirming health care for transgender minors.

HRC has seen a surge in anti-transgender bills since 2015. The group states that often these bills originate with such anti-LGBTQ groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Policy Alliance.

Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels
Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

“The same few sources have been responsible for peddling anti-LGBTQ legislation for many years, and this legislation is simply the latest iteration of their losing political fight against equality,” adds Oakley, labeling it a political scare tactic. “While extremist groups push copycat bills down to states, these state legislators should understand that their constituents — including a large majority of Republicans — believe transgender people should be allowed to live freely and openly. The only thing these bills do is harm kids who are simply trying to navigate their adolescence.”

Oakley compares the coordinated effort of  “manufactured fear” around women’s sports to tactics used around bathroom access and, before that, marriage equality.

When Dittrich held her news conference to announce her sports participation bills, other participants — particularly some of the young athletes she had speak in support — said that they did not view the bills as anti-transgender, but rather a matter of fairness. In their message on the bill, they made frequent reference to Title IX, linking the exclusionary bills to athletic rules that ban discrimination and promote women’s participation in sports.

“You can’t win against men,” said Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) at the news conference, standing alongside a handful of young women athletes. “And that’s the biology, the reality. And honestly, you ruin women’s sports forever. Why would you compete if you knew you couldn’t win? What kind of message is that for our young women leaders? Listen, we want to have a fair playing field.”

Rep. Barb Dittrich and Rep. Janel Brandtjen | WisEye

Sen. Carpenter says getting accurate information out was one of his top goals in putting forward his resolution. He says that as a gay man born in 1960, he experienced LGBTQ discrimination surrounding the AIDS epidemic and backlash from Wisconsin’s anti-same sex marriage constitutional amendment and understands how such bills are hurting transgender people.

He calls it the “next step in the civil rights movement.”

Science shows that transgender girls and women do not have a significant physical advantage. Trans women receiving estrogen hormonal therapy typically see decreased muscle mass, strength, as well as body-fat redistribution, according to the Center on Excellence for Transgender Health.

Federal legislation following a template similar to state laws on sports participation has been introduced but it is not expected to advance under Democratic control. After four years of federal discrimination against LGBTQ and transgender individuals under the Trump administration, President Joe Biden issued an executive order immediately following his inauguration to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation that read, “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.”

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If Carpenter had his way, legislators who are proposing such bills would sit down with transgender constituents to learn about them. He guesses most of his Republican colleagues have never met or spoken with a transgender person.

A recent investigation by the Associated Press showed that legislators who were proposing such bills were unable to name any transgender athletes or situations where the sex assigned at birth gave an advantage over other athletes who were assigned a different sex at birth.

“Legislators across the country, when they’re asked about resolutions trying to ban or segregate transgender people and saying that they’re winning all of these trophies and blocking someone else’s ability, haven’t been able to come up with any cases,” says Carpenter. “And so, I felt it was important that we briefly discuss things and we’ll be glad to debate that once we get to the floor. If it makes it that far.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin 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. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin 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.

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