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a photo of Tate Reeves signing a bill with lawmakers standing behind him
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed the first state bill in the U.S. in 2021 banning transgender athletes from competing on female sports teams, as supporting lawmakers gather behind him, Thursday, March 11, 2021, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

‘Lives of Trans Kids in Danger’ As Reeves Signs Sports Bill, Org Says

Dozens of beaming Mississippi lawmakers broke into applause from steps of the Mississippi Capitol rotunda today as Gov. Tate Reeves, seated at a desk at the base of the staircase, signed Senate Bill 2536 into law, banning transgender children and adults in public schools and colleges from playing on sports teams that match their gender.

“I am proud of the stand Mississippi is taking on this issue with the passage and ultimately the signing of the Mississippi Fairness Act. It sends a clear message to my daughters and all of Mississippi’s daughters that their rights are worth fighting for,” the Republican governor announced, as Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn stood nearby.

Reeves made special mention of four women lawmakers who worked to ensure the bill’s passage, including the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, and House Reps. Stacey Hobgood-Wilkes, R-Picayune; Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, and Jill Ford, R-Madison.

‘Reeves is Openly Welcoming Discrimination’

Rob Hill, the pro-LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign’s state director, said in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press today that the law will prove especially harmful for transgender teenagers.

“By making this harmful bill the law in Mississippi, Governor Reeves is openly welcoming discrimination and putting the lives of transgender kids in danger,” Hill said.

Rob Hill, Human Rights Campaign state director for Mississippi. Photo courtesy HRC

Before Gov. Reeves signed the bill, which is officially titled “The Mississippi Fairness Act,” he described the moment as “an important day for the women and girls of Mississippi” and claimed that it “will ensure that young girls in Mississippi have a fair, level playing field in public school sports.”

When a reporter asked Reeves if he could name any examples of schools or colleges in Mississippi having issues related to transgender teens or adult participating in sports, the governor claimed it had only become an issue “a little over a month and a half ago” once President Joe Biden took office.

“So I can’t personally give you any examples, but that’s the reason the Fairness Act is in place—to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” Reeves said. Similarly, Republican leaders in other states who have failed to cite examples of incidents meriting similar legislation, including lawmakers in Idaho, where the governor there signed an almost identical ban last year.

Reeves: Biden ‘Encourages Transgenderism’

Reeves was referring to an executive order Biden signed on Jan. 20 that implemented a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that found that transgender people are protected from certain forms of discrimination “on the basis of sex” under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Biden’s order specifies that public schools and public institutions of higher education cannot discriminate against transgender K-12 students or college students.

“But for the fact that President Biden as one of his first initiatives sat down and signed an executive order which, in my view, encourages transgenderism amongst our young people, but for that fact, we wouldn’t be here today. This was one of the first things that President Biden chose to do when in office was sign this order,” Reeves said.

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin (right) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley (left), sign an executive order rescinding a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Five days earlier, on his first day in office, he signed an order barring public schools and other institutions from discriminating against transgender people. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

But Sen. Angela Hill, the bill’s author who stood close behind the governor during today’s signing, introduced the bill on Jan. 18, 2021—two days before Biden took office. 

S.B. 2536’s language is mostly identical to the one that Idaho lawmakers passed in 2020. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as “a hate group” (a charge the ADF contests), helped Idaho lawmakers write the original bill. 

In the mid-2010s, the ADF helped write two “religious liberty” bills that then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves helped shepherd through the Senate and that former Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law. The ADF has ties to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, and to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes bills alongside corporate leaders before disseminating them to statehouses nationwide. 

Controversial Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering was on ADF’s board as recently as 2018, although he is no longer on the board list.

Sen. Hill: ‘I Saw This Coming’

In a February interview with Y’all Politics, a Republican-friendly blog, Sen. Hill noted that she also filed the bill in the Legislature last year.

“I saw this coming. And I absolutely stand to protect these females,” she said.

The bill originally included language that could have allowed doctors to inspect athletes’ genitalia to ensure it aligned with their stated gender. 

“Just because you say that you’re a female, it’s not gone work. You’ve got to show that you’re a female in some way, shape or form,” Sen. Hill said in the Y’all Politics interview on Feb. 12.

After others raised concerns about that provision, the senator offered and senators passed an amendment stripping out the language that would have included the invasive genital checks.

“It’s going to wipe out 50 years of nondiscrimination protections for women … across the board,” Hill, who last year voted against a Republican-sponsored bill mandating equal pay for Mississippi women, told Y’all Politics in February.

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, is behind much of the anti-trans legislation in the 2021 session. Photo by AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

“This bill is simply designed to protect those female athletes from having biological males come into their female sport and spoil it for them. It’s just not fair for biological males to come in and dominate female sports,” Hill said at the time.

Gov. Reeves, similarly, said today that he views transgender players “as presenting an unfair challenge to biological girls who wish to join sports teams.”

But while Reeves, Sen. Hill and others who support the law focus on ensuring transgender women must play on men’s teams, it will also require transgender men to play on women’s teams—which could create the problems the law’s supporters say they want to avoid.

In a Feb. 16 report on the bill, Mississippi Free Press State Reporter Nick Judin cited a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that “found that between one to two years of hormone-replacement therapy was sufficient to allow equitable competition between trans-women and cis-women even at elite Olympic levels, to say nothing of high-school level sports.”

Practically, that means that the law Gov. Reeves’ signed today could have the effect of placing transgender boys and men on girl’s and women’s teams—even if their strength and physical performance is equal to that of cisgender male athletes.

Mississippi Could Face Lawsuit

While taking questions from the press today, Gov. Reeves admitted that the state could have to spend taxpayer dollars to defend the law in court. Idaho is currently defending its own version of the law in federal court.

“It wouldn’t surprise me much at all if we were sued, and in that case I don’t think I’ll spend much time opining on our chances in court, but I do know we’ll defend vigorously our right to make these state laws, particularly considering the fact that the order the president signed was just the stroke of a pen by one individual and it’s not a federal law passed by Congress,” he said.

The U.S. House did pass the Equality Act last month, with all three Mississippi Republicans voting against it and only Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, voting for it. If it becomes law, the Equality Act would formally ban the same types of discrimination Biden’s order takes aim at—including on public-school sports teams. But the law will likely fail in the U.S. Senate, where a Republican filibuster can kill it.

Today, Reeves invoked his children as he explained his support for the law.

“I have three young daughters of mine. Many have heard us talk about how much enjoyment we get from watching them play ball. It gives them an opportunity to use the talents that God blessed them with, but it’s not just about winning and losing. It’s about the lessons that they learned while on the field,” the governor said.

‘This Is Not A Problem In Mississippi’

Rob Hill, the Human Rights Campaign director, criticized the governor for targeting transgender Mississippians instead of focusing on other pressing issues.

“Missisippians are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. This law does nothing to help the tens of thousands still out of work or the nearly 300,000 who have contracted the virus in the state. What it does is further discriminate against transgender kids who are simply trying to navigate their adolescence. Every kid deserves the opportunity to learn the values of participation, team work, and work ethic that come with youth sports. Governor Reeves knows this is not a problem in Mississippi and yet he insists on enthusiastically signing this bill to sow fear and division,” he said in the statement today.

Since earlier this month, Gov. Reeves has faced criticism for ending most of the state’s public-health orders, including from President Biden, who attributed it to “neanderthal thinking.” In a fundraising email on Tuesday, the Mississippi Republican Party falsely claimed that “Biden called Mississippians neanderthals” before asking supporters to give money to help stop Biden from “(destroying) this great country.

U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi co-sponsored the Equality Act and was the only House member from Mississippi to support it as all three Republicans from the state voted against it. Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

At today’s press conference after the bill signing, Reeves criticized Biden—and congressional Democrats who passed the $1.9-trillion stimulus bill that President Biden plans to sign into law. The Mississippi governor called the bill a “partisan wish list” for Democrats. He also said he has concerns that it will increase the national debt, despite the fact that he supported two stimulus bills with similar provisions under Trump last year that totaled over $3.1 trillion.

All five members of Mississippi’s Republican congressional delegation, who voted for last year’s stimulus bills under Trump, opposed the current stimulus package, too. Only Rep. Thompson, Mississippi’s lone Democratic or Black member of Congress, voted for all three bills. Several polls have found that more than 70% of Americans, including most Republican voters, support the legislation, but every Republican in the U.S. Senate voted against it even as every Democrat voted for it.

In Mississippi, the vote on the bill banning transgender sports participation did not split so neatly along party lines. While most Democrats opposed the bill, a small number defected and voted for it. One of those Democrats, Rep. De’Keither Stamps of Jackson, joined his Republican colleagues today as they stood behind Gov. Reeves while he signed S.B. 2536 into law. One year to the day after Mississippi announced the state’s first novel coronavirus case, Stamps was the only member of the crowd wearing a mask.

Lambda Legal: Bills Will ‘Exacerbate Bullying’

Governors in other states could soon sign their own bans on transgender teens and adults participating in sports at public schools and colleges. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, has announced plans to sign Idaho House Bill 1217, which, like the Mississippi law, uses the language the Alliance Defending Freedom helped write for Idaho’s bill last year. 

“The attacks against transgender youth in South Dakota and Mississippi and other states are abhorrent,” Lambda Legal’s co-director and senior attorney, Sasha Buchert, said in a statement this afternoon. “Excluding transgender youth from school sports will only exacerbate the bullying and discrimination they already experience in their young lives simply because of who they are. The bills signed today by Gov. Noem and Gov. Reeves are harmful and dangerous and are a solution in search of a problem.

“Having failed to ban us from bathrooms and deny us equal protection in the workplace, they now have turned to going after transgender children, a new, but sadly unsurprising low,” says Sasha Buchert, senior attorney for Lambda Legal. Photo courtesy Lambda Legal

“Supporters of this legislation cannot point to a single case in their states to justify the rank discrimination they seek to enshrine. But these bills are not just gratuitous distractions from the multiple, serious crises in these states. They are also the latest in a vicious and unending campaign to strip our communities of their rights and dignity. Having failed to ban us from bathrooms and deny us equal protection in the workplace, they now have turned to going after transgender children, a new, but sadly unsurprising low.”

Trans girls “playing alongside their peers is not a threat to girls’ and women’s sports” just as “LGBTQ rights are not a threat to the cherished right of people in this country to practice and express their faith.” 

Buchert was referring to a law Noem signed in South Dakota yesterday that, similar to Mississippi’s 2016 “religious liberty” bill, formally recognizes a right for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people so long as they cite religion as a justification. It also allows people to invoke their religious beliefs to defy public health laws.

“To trans youth in South Dakota, Mississippi and all across the country, trust that there is an entire community of people who celebrate you, stand with you, and believe you deserve to feel safe and respected,” Buchert said in today’s statement. “Also know that just as Lambda Legal has been fighting for LGBTQ people for almost 50 years, we will keep fighting until every trans youth can fully participate on their team, in their school, and in the world.”

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