Civil Rights Groups Sue Tennessee Over Law Against Transgender Student Athletes

By The Associated Press — November 05, 2021 3 min read
Amy Allen, the mother of an 8th grade transgender son, speaks after a Human Rights Campaign round table discussion on anti-transgender laws in Nashville, Tenn. on May 21, 2021.
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Two civil rights groups filed a federal court challenge Thursday against a Tennessee law that bars transgender athletes from playing public high school or middle school sports aligned with their gender identity.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBTQ civil rights, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Nashville on behalf of a 14-year-old transgender boy, arguing the state law violates equal rights protections under the 14th Amendment and Title IX.

Luc Esquivel is a freshman at Farragut High School in Knoxville whose plans to try out for the boys golf team were derailed when Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the legislative earlier this year, the lawsuit states. Lee declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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Laur Kaufman, 13, of Harlingen, waves a flag at a rally against House Bill 25, a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating in girls school sports, outside the Capitol in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.
Laur Kaufman, 13, of Harlingen, Texas, waves a flag at a rally at the state capitol in Austin against a bill that would restrict transgender students' access to single-sex sports teams.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

“I was really looking forward to trying out for the boys’ golf team and, if I made it, training and competing with and learning from other boys and improving my game,” Esquivel said in a news release. “Then, to have the legislature pass a law that singled out me and kids like me to keep us from being part of a team, that crushed me, it hurt very much. I just want to play, like any other kid.”

The challenge follows a wave of Republican-led bills nationwide passed this year that target transgender people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 10 states now have enacted sports bans aimed at transgender athletes: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and South Dakota, where the governor used executive order powers. Federal judges have blocked the policies passed this year in West Virginia and in 2020 in Idaho, two states where the bans apply to female teams only, but also extend to collegiate athletics.

Tennessee’s Gov. Lee helped fuel the bill’s progress early on, saying in February that allowing transgender girls to play on middle and high school sports teams would “destroy women’s sports.” In March, lawmakers passed the bill and Lee signed it. Over the next few months, Tennessee became a leading state in passing legislation aimed at transgender people.

Tennessee’s new laws this year also restrict bathroom options in public schools for transgender people, require notices outside public bathrooms at businesses and government buildings that let transgender people use the bathrooms of their gender identity, let parents opt students out of public school lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity, and ban doctors from providing gender-confirming hormone treatment to prepubescent minors, though advocates say doctors there already don’t do that.

[T]o have the legislature pass a law that singled out me and kids like me to keep us from being part of a team, that crushed me, it hurt very much. I just want to play, like any other kid.

The bathroom signage requirement remains blocked by a judge while a federal lawsuit proceeds. Tennessee is defending against a federal lawsuit over the school bathroom restriction, which puts schools at risk of losing lawsuits if they let transgender students or employees use multiperson bathrooms or locker rooms that do not reflect their sex at birth.

Lawmakers who brought the slew of transgender sports bills this year, meanwhile, struggled to cite any problems by transgender athlete participation in their states.

Legislation targeting transgender people has prompted outcry from prominent opponents, including the business community. But so far, there has been little in the way of tangible repercussions for those states, particularly compared with when North Carolina’s Legislature passed a bill in March 2016 limiting which public restrooms transgender people could use, prompting a swift and powerful backlash. The NBA and NCAA relocated events; some companies scrapped expansion plans. By March 2017, the bill’s bathroom provisions were repealed.

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