Anti-trans sports bills leave schools torn about whether to follow state or federal law

A women's sports team wearing red jerseys in a huddle
Photo: Shutterstock

In March, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed an anti-trans sports bill into law to ban K-12 and college trans girls from playing women’s sports.

Now, Iowa school districts are stuck between a rock and a hard place, unsure whether to follow state or federal law. They have been forced to decide whether to adhere to the anti-trans bill or to the federal anti-discrimination policies put forth by the Biden administration.

Last summer, in an opinion on Title IX, the Department of Education announced increased protections for LGBTQ students. The law bans discrimination “on the basis of sex” in schools.

“Students cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told the New York Times when the new rules were proposed.

At the time, experts warned that states could rebel against the administration and refuse to implement the guidelines.

This is what seems to be taking place in Iowa. In Des Moines and the surrounding area, most school districts have chosen to follow state law, Axios reports, though most also say they have not been aware of any scenario in which a trans girl has even tried to participate in an athletic team.

Damian Thompson of LGBTQ advocacy group Iowa Safe Schools called it an “administrative nightmare” and said that the situation has “caused trauma for our transgender girl students and our transgender students in general.”

What makes the situation more complex is that the Biden administration said it would release a separate recommendation about sports, but it has yet to do so.

Meanwhile, the issue of trans girls in sports – an issue that has been given national attention by Republicans over the last several years – continues to take center stage as the midterms approach.

In Iowa, state Sen. Jake Chapman (R) sponsored an ad calling his opponent, Democratic state Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, a “radical activist” for voting “to let biological males compete in girls sports.”

LGBTQ advocates – and Biden himself, in a second executive order banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in schools – argue that Title IX protects transgender student-athletes rights. Both transgender and cisgender girls are girls, they argue, and telling one group of girls that they can’t play sports simply because of their sex assigned at birth is exactly the type of discrimination “on the basis of sex” that Title IX prohibits.

Currently, 18 states have anti-trans sports laws on the books (though some are temporarily blocked by judges), meaning schools across the country must decide whether to follow state or federal laws.

When the new interpretation of Title IX was announced last year, Cardona said that each state’s case would need to be investigated individually.

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