POLITICO | by Andrew Atterbury | April 28, 2021
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Legislature late Wednesday unexpectedly rekindled — and passed — a controversial bill banning transgender athletes from playing girls’ and women’s sports that had been dormant at the statehouse since the Senate abandoned the proposal last week.
House members tacked the contentious measure on to a charter school package that lawmakers passed back and forth Wednesday, bringing the policy back from the dead and sending it to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The GOP-controlled House tweaked the language referring to the ban on transgender student athletes, claiming it was a compromise — but Democrats contended that wasn’t the case.
“A compromise means you’re actually communicating with those who are defending trans students, not with opposing chambers,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando). “A compromise would actually entail talking to those of us who oppose this bill for very legitimate reasons.”
The House added the language of the ban to FL SB1028 (21R), a wide-ranging piece of legislation that was originally a charter school package but has evolved into an omnibus bill. It’s one of the few remaining education proposals left on the docket, and as such one of the last opportunities to get the measure passed.
Dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” the original legislation defined that K-12 and college sports teams must be designated based on “biological” sex while charging state agencies with crafting policies to hash out gender disputes. The idea was condemned by members of the LGBTQ community and lawmakers who viewed the measure as discriminatory toward transgender students.
On Wednesday, House members removed one of the more controversial pieces of the bill that would have required a doctor to verify a student’s sex by inspecting their genitals in the event of a dispute over gender. The amendment, which was backed by a 77-38 vote in the House, also permits students to verify their sex through a birth certificate. Senators passed the bill 23-16.
Additionally, the House carved elementary schools out of the ban, which would apply to middle and high school sports and college athletics including intramurals. The Senate was willing to accept those changes and the legislation wholesale.
“We’re not trying to discriminate against the children, we’re not trying to make them feel rejected,” said state Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), who sponsored the original Senate bill. “We’re just trying to make sure that they are safe when they do play, and that they play in the sport that most goes with their physiological makeup.”
The issue surrounding transgender students’ participation in sports was magnified recently when the NCAA put states like Florida on notice just before the House voted for the measure, warning that locations that don’t treat all student athletes with “dignity and respect” could be ineligible to host future championship games.
A top Senate panel subsequently tabled considering the ban, a move that signaled the upper chamber was reluctant to move forward with the bill.
But that abruptly changed Wednesday when the Senate immediately took the proposal after it was voted out of the House. Democrats in both chambers unsuccessfully attempted to turn the tide for the bill, debating that it was a waste of time for the Legislature that could end up hurting the state financially if the NCAA or businesses oppose the move.
“We don’t need this,” said state Sen. Victor Torres (D-Orlando), who testified that his granddaughter is transgender. “We don’t need to destroy the lives of those children and their futures. If they want to play, let them play.”
Florida’s GOP lawmakers contend the bill is needed to protect the sanctity of women’s sports, following the path of more than 20 other GOP-leaning states that are using the issue to limit transgender rights. The measure has been a priority for the Republican-led Legislature, which this year has pushed several bills that thrust lawmakers into the nation’s culture wars, including measures aimed at cracking down on social media companies and anti-riot legislation.
“To think this is anti- anything is wrong,” said state Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville). “This is a pro-female, pro-woman bill.”
While the House added the language surrounding transgender student athletes to SB 1028, the chamber backed off other measures it added to the bill just earlier on Wednesday. Most notably, the House attempted to install eight-year term limits for local school board members through the legislation, an idea the Senate promptly rejected.
The legislation includes policies surrounding student retention due to the Covid-19 pandemic and water safety education that the Senate added earlier on Wednesday.
Image: Sen. Kelli Stargel sponsored the original Senate bill. | Aileen Perilla/AP Photo