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Indiana governor vetoes ban on transgender girls in school sports

Republican Governor Eric Holcomb said in a letter he found no evidence that transgender girls' participation on girls' sports teams hurts fair competition in Indiana school athletics.

(CN) — Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb vetoed an anti-transgender sports bill Monday evening, saying it lacked clarity and attempted to solve a problem that didn't exist in the first place.

The bill, passed by both chambers of the GOP-dominated Indiana Legislature earlier this month, would have banned student-athletes who were born male but identify as girls from participating in K-12 girls' sports across the state.

Supporters of the legislation, known as HEA 1041, argued that born-male athletes competing in girls' sports leagues would give their teams an unfair advantage over their competitors and discourage cisgender girls' participation in school athletics.

“I know from experience that female athletes deserve fair competition and an even playing field,” said Republican state Representative Michelle Davis, a Whiteland Republican and the bill's main author, in February.

The Alliance Defending Freedom - a conservative law collective considered an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center - also threw its support behind the bill in a statement.

"A claim of female gender identity—however sincere—does not erase a male’s physical advantage over women. When we use this standard for athletic teams, we ensure that fairness and equal athletic opportunities are preserved for women and girls," the group said.

Indiana civil rights groups and other opponents of the bill, including transgender women athletes, decried these and similar statements as insincere smokescreens meant to legitimize anti-transgender bigotry. The ACLU of Indiana argued that success in different sports depends as much on training and body type as gender, and that perfect athletic equality between individuals was already impossible given these inherent differences.

"Trans youth vary in athletic ability, just like cisgender youth. Every kid has a range of different physical characteristics varying in size, strength and athletic ability. Success in school sports is dependent on practice, hard work, self-discipline, access to good coaches and facilities, and money to pay for outside training – not being trans," the Indiana ACLU said.

Governor Holcomb, a Republican, personally objected to the bill's broad wording, which in addition to banning K-12 transgender girls from participating in girls' sports also requires public and private schools in Indiana to create a "grievance process" for violations of the would-be law. It proposes undefined civil and criminal penalties for these violations.

"First, as to process, the wide-open nature of the grievance provisions in HEA 1041 that apply to all K-12 schools in Indiana makes it unclear about how consistency and fairness will be maintained for parents and students across different counties and school districts...Meaning, student-athletes could be treated differently according to which school they attend and compete for," Holcomb wrote in an open letter accompanying his veto.

The governor also suggested that the bill is a solution looking for a problem. There are only about 3,350 transgender youth aged 13 to 17 in Indiana as of 2020, a study by UCLA's Williams Institute found. That's less than 0.006% of the total teenage population reported by the state in 2020 – and an even smaller fraction of that population would identify as girls or women.

Additionally, as the National Library of Medicine found in 2013, less than 1% of K-12 student athletes go on to compete at any elite level.

"The presumption of the policy laid out in [the bill] is that there is an existing problem in K-12 sports in Indiana that requires further state government intervention. It implies that the goals of consistency and fairness in competitive female sports are not currently being met. After thorough review, I find no evidence to support either claim even if I support the overall goal," Holcomb wrote.

Despite Holcomb's grievances and veto, the bill is not dead yet. A simple majority vote of both chambers of the Indiana Legislature is all that is needed to overturn the governor's veto, which is a distinct possibility in the Republican-dominated state Capitol.

One of the co-authors of the bill, state Representative Chris Jeter, a Republican from Fishers, said late Monday night he intended to whip the votes necessary to override Holcomb.

"Indiana girls deserve better. I will encourage my colleagues to join me in overriding this veto and protecting women athletes in Indiana," he said.

Jeter will get his chance on May 24, when the Indiana General Assembly meets for a technical corrections day. Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston said Tuesday afternoon that Republican state lawmakers plan to override the governor’s veto.

In the meantime, opponents of the bill are still taking a victory lap.

"This victory belongs to the trans youth of Indiana, who deserve to live as their authentic selves and to play the sports they love, free from discrimination," said Katie Blair, the Indiana ACLU's public policy director, in a prepared statement. "Discrimination has no place in our state."

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