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Legislative Roundup: Anti-Trans Athletes Bill Moves Forward, Fight to Change Marijuana Initiative

Trans girls could not participate in female sporting events in Mississippi’s schools under legislation passed out of the Senate with only hours remaining in the legislative deadline. Photo by AP Photo/Robin Rayne

Mississippi’s trans youth may find themselves barred from school sports if the Mississippi House of Representatives confirms a Senate bill, passed in the waning hours of last week’s legislative deadline, that targets trans children, especially trans girls. Both chambers saw similar bills to limit trans rights this session.

The anti-trans bill passed the Senate in the long hours of a Thursday session extended into early Friday morning. A contentious battle over a parallel marijuana program—an alternative to 2020’s successful ballot initiative 65—derailed regular floor debate until late at night.

As that late-night session drew to a close on Thursday, Feb. 11, the deadline for original floor action lapsed. Now the final half of the session remains, one that promises to be much more rapid than the drawn-out affair of 2020’s COVID session.

Trans Girls Banned, Boys Unclear

Senate Bill 2536 is not the only anti-trans bill in the Legislature this session, but it currently serves as the standard bearer for the movement to establish firm laws against trans Mississippians in public life. The bill, previously titled the “Mississippi Fairness Act,” would specifically ban trans girls from competing in female-designated interscholastic or intramural sporting events.

Supporters of the bill, including Gov. Tate Reeves, stress the value of fair athletic competition, asserting that trans girls possess an insurmountable physical advantage over their cisgender female counterparts, a claim medical science has repeatedly dismantled. Most recently, a British Journal of Sports Medicine study 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.

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

The specifics of S.B. 2536 remain murky and undefined. The bill seeks to establish specific sex-based criteria for all school sports teams, but says nothing about the participation of trans boys in male leagues. Initially, the legislation called for the resolution of all “disputes” over the proper placement of a student athlete with a physician examination of the individual’s “internal and external reproductive anatomy,” as well as their hormone levels and “genetic makeup.”

However, Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, submitted a last-minute amendment to her own bill stripping the title and the potential physician examinations from the language. As it currently stands, there is no mechanism for confirming the gender or sex of any given athlete in S.B. 2536.

A Target On Their Backs

Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU and former Democratic House representative, described Senate Bill 2536 as a transphobic catastrophe that would only serve to harass children. “It paints a target on the back of trans Mississippians. It makes them feel unwelcome, unwanted in our society and our schools. To see it happen the way it did … there wasn’t much explanation about what they were even passing,” Dortch told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview.

The move comes after the Biden administration issued an executive order requiring state agencies to “review all existing orders, regulations, guidance documents, policies, programs, or other agency actions” to ensure that “all persons … receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, says Senate Bill 2536 targets trans Mississippians for harassment and ostracization. Photo by State of Mississippi

Earlier in the evening, when the lengthy debate over the marijuana program threatened to kill the remainder of the bills by delaying them until after the deadline, the House added similar language to an unrelated piece of legislation—House Bill 1030, which allows for college athletes to profit off of their image. H.B. 1030 now explicitly excludes trans women, a passing attack on their legitimacy as competitors that could endure even if the full ban fails.

A more complete effort to limit the rights of trans Mississippians died earlier with the committee deadline. Senate Bill 2171, another bill from Sen. Hill, would have prevented any Mississippian under the age of 21 from accessing all forms of gender-confirmation surgery, hormone-replacement therapy or puberty-delaying treatments.

The remainder of the trans sports debate is now left to the House. How the ban will be enforced, if trans boys will be pushed into competing with cisgender girls, and what ability school administrators and athletic coordinators will have to crack down on children “suspected” of being trans is yet to be determined.

Medical Marijuana and Criminal Justice

No bill received more scrutiny in the Senate last week than a proposal to create an alternative medical-marijuana program, Senate Bill 2765. Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, introduced the legislation following a legal challenge to Initiative 65, which voters passed in the November election. Blackwell’s bill would trigger if Initiative 65 is struck down in the courts, creating a similar medical-marijuana program with comparable restrictions. 

Initially, the bill carried significantly steeper costs for new cultivators and dispensaries. Those fees were slashed in the long hours of behind-the-scenes debates on Thursday, with the eye-popping $100,000 up-front cultivator licensing fee reduced to $15,000, plus other reductions in taxes and charges.

Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, is still on track to achieve his goal of significant parole reform for incarcerated Mississippians, with both House and Senate versions of the bill surviving their original chambers. Photo by AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippians hoping for an end to criminal-record inquiries prior to job interviews will have to wait another year. Senate Bill 2019, The Ban the Box Act, died on the calendar as time expired for original floor legislation, joining the House version which perished earlier in committee. 

Ban the Box would have prevented public employers from asking prospective job applicants if they had been convicted of a crime, which criminal-justice reform advocates say prevents previously incarcerated jobseekers from even getting an interview.

Criminal-justice reform in general, including the large-scale parole reforms that Gov. Reeves’ veto narrowly killed last session, are still on track for a return to the governor’s desk, this time with compromises built out of negotiations with representatives from law enforcement across the state.

Senate Bill 2795, the “Earned Parole Eligibility Act” and its House variant, House Bill 525, include a number of significant changes to formalize parole eligibility, giving incarcerated Mississippians a clear roadmap to a hearing before the parole board, as well as mandating re-entry training as a gateway to parole.

Now that both bills have passed their relevant chambers, the Legislature must reconcile their language to present a unified package of criminal-justice reforms that Gov. Reeves gauges worthy of his signature—or find enough support in both chambers to overcome it with a two-thirds vote.

The Legislature now has until March 10 for original floor action on the general bills that survived their own chambers.

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