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State finds wedge issue even amid pandemic

Some Mississippi legislators thought the 2021 session might be tightly focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and that might dampen enthusiasm for delving into divisive social issues.

They were wrong.

The state Senate voted Feb. 11 to ban transgender athletes from competing in girls’ or women’s sports teams in Mississippi schools, community colleges and universities. No senator asked whether any transgender athlete has tried to compete.

“I’ve had numerous coaches across the state call me and believe that they feel there’s a need for a policy in Mississippi because they are beginning to have some concerns of having to deal with this,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Angela Hill of Picayune.

Mississippi is one of a dozen states with lawmakers proposing restrictions on athletics or gender-confirming health care for transgender minors this year. Democratic President Joe Biden signed an executive order Jan. 20 — the day he took office — that bans discrimination based on gender identity in school sports and elsewhere.

There was little discussion of Senate Bill 2536 before the Republican-controlled Mississippi Senate passed it 34-9 during a late-night session on a deadline day. Four senators voted “present,” which does not count for or against the measure. Five did not vote.

Rob Hill is state executive director of Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

“By passing SB 2536, the Mississippi Senate is listening to national extremist organizations that are using fear and hate as a political wedge,” Hill said in a statement. “All this bill does is put transgender youth at risk of bullying, exclusion, and increased danger while discrimination and violence against transgender people is at a record high in this country. If legislators would simply listen to medical experts and transgender athletes, they might know that transitioning for the sake of a competitive advantage is simply unrealistic. So is the idea that transgender athletes even gain a supposed advantage in the first place.”

A few hours before the Senate vote, the Republican-controlled Mississippi House approved a different limit on transgender athletes. Representatives were considering House Bill 1030, which would allow college athletes to make money off of their own name, image or likeness.

A few states, including Florida, have already voted to let college athletes earn money that way. Republican Rep. Scott Bounds of Philadelphia argued that Mississippi universities would face a disadvantage in recruiting unless this state also allows it.

Republican Rep. Becky Currie of Brookhaven offered an amendment to exclude transgender college athletes from earning money on their name, likeness or image — again, without offering evidence that any transgender athletes are playing on Mississippi sports teams.

Currie said her amendment was intended protect women from having to compete against people who were born male.

“You’re either for women and women’s sports and let them be able to train and do all the hard work that you have to do to become state champs or winners and college athletes, or you’re not,” Currie said.

Currie’s amendment said that if an athlete’s sex is in dispute, he or she may present a signed physician’s statement indicating the athlete’s “internal and external reproductive anatomy … normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone” and “genetic makeup.”

Democratic Rep. Shanda Yates of Jackson asked during the debate on Currie’s amendment: “Why are we addressing problems that our state isn’t facing when we have plenty of our own problems that we do face on a daily basis that we’re not addressing?”

Democratic Rep. John Hines of Greenville asked Bounds during the debate what would happen if a person had been born with both male and female reproductive organs and that person decided to compete in sports. Bounds did not have a clear answer. His focus was on keeping Mississippi universities competitive in recruiting athletes.

Currie’s amendment passed on a voice vote, which means there is no record of which representatives voted yes and who voted no. The bill then passed 93-19.

The House bill now moves to the Senate for more debate, and the Senate bill moves to the House.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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