Failed veto override changes nothing for Louisiana’s trans athletes

“It’s frustrating knowing that it's not about justice, that it is actually about hurting people, about having control, about power,” says Lafayette's Peyton Rose Michelle of bills banning transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Peyton Rose Michelle was an active kid long before she won a seat on Louisiana’s Democratic State Central Committee and became the state’s first openly transgender elected official.

Growing up in Breaux Bridge alongside three brothers, she spent plenty of afternoons biking around the neighborhood and playing baseball in the yard. Organized sports were never her thing as a teenager — “I was too depressed, frankly,” she says — but by the time she was 18 or so, Michelle knew she’d have to take exercise more seriously if she wanted to improve her mental health. So she drug herself out to Lake Martin and the Acadiana Nature Station for long walks. She attended ballet classes at Basin Arts and then at UL, where she was enrolled. Save for running water to football players during games as a team manager at Breaux Bridge High, the ballet class was the first school-sponsored physical activity she’d ever opted into.

“It was amazing,” she says. “I did ballet, I sweated and I hurt afterward — like everyone else.” Exercise has been freeing for her, she explains, helping her achieve a more relaxed state of mind.

Studies show that Michelle’s experience is far from exceptional. Adolescents and college-aged students involved in sports are less likely to suffer from suicidal ideation, anxiety and depression than their peers who are not. For transgender students like Michelle, these benefits can be life-altering. With increased visibility of trans athletes in the Tokyo Olympics and the outcome of the recent legislative veto-override session that failed to block the governor’s veto of a bill that would ban transgender girls and women from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity, it could appear that the tide is turning in favor of increased participation in school sports for transgender students. However, due to invasive and stigmatizing policy hurdles already codified in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association handbook, virtually nothing has changed for these students. Until that happens, the overwhelming majority (if not all) of trans kids across the state will be forced to remain on the sidelines.

According to the LHSAA handbook’s Gender Equity Statement, a student-athlete must compete in the sports team of their assigned-at-birth gender unless they’ve “undergone sex reassignment.” For students who meet the vague criteria of having already “undergone puberty,” the handbook stipulates that, among other things, they must have completed surgical procedures to their “external genitalia” two years before competing in interscholastic sports. These procedures, commonly (and less offensively) called “bottom surgeries,” can be extremely affirming for many transgender people; however, only 4-13% of all transgender adults in the U.S. have chosen to have them, and most medical doctors don’t recommend them for trans youth. Hormone treatment, by contrast, tends to be the preferred medical intervention before adulthood. To require these surgeries (and their disclosure to the association) is tantamount to a ban on transgender participation in sports.

It’s worth noting that Republican Senate President Page Cortez of Lafayette, who recently refused to disclose his vaccination status to The Advocate on the grounds that it was an invasion of his privacy, supported the session to override the Gov. John Bel Edwards veto on the anti-trans sports ban.

Louisiana is one of only three other states in the nation requiring surgery for transgender student-athletes’ participation. And while most states’ athletic associations discriminate against trans students, more inclusive policies are on the books in several, including one of our neighbors on the Gulf Coast. The Florida High School Athletic Association Handbook, for example, outlines a gender identity participation policy wherein students who wish to participate in sports teams consistent with their gender identity may petition a committee to do so. The committee includes a trans-affirming medical practitioner, counselor and advocate alongside school administrators and the coach of the team, and its determination is open to appeal and at no point requires the student to present any government-issued documentation with their chosen name and assigned gender on it.

Arguments against such policies tend to elide the abundance of data that suggests their success. Those who oppose transgender inclusion in sports, including Lafayette’s two Republican senators and five Republican representatives, cite concerns that allowing transgender women to participate in women’s sports will curb opportunities for cisgender women athletes. But in states like Washington, where transgender athletes have had license to participate in school sports in accordance to their gender identity since 2008, only three have chosen to do so. None has won any championships.

Other hypothetical arguments — for instance, that trans participation in sports will discourage cisgender student participation — also lack evidence. On the contrary, California Interscholastic Federation reports that women’s sports teams have shown a 14% increase in overall participation since 2014, when it changed its handbook to include a less discriminatory policy for trans and non-binary student athletes.

Although Louisiana’s bill was titled the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” Michelle says the law had more to do with a partisan power struggle than equity.

Strikingly similar bills have cropped up in many different states this year, which LGBTQ rights advocates trace to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative nonprofit legal advocacy group that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers an anti-LGBTQ hate group. ADF provided guidance to Idaho legislator Barbara Ehardt on composing the bill last spring, which then spread to more than 20 states, including Louisiana.

“It’s frustrating knowing that it's not about justice, that it is actually about hurting people, about having control, about power,” says Michelle of these bills. “They use ethical arguments. They call upon justice, but only to drive them to victory.” Michelle thinks most constituents in support of such bills have been frightened and mis-informed by conservative groups into believing that girls’ sports are threatened by transgender women.

“I have empathy for those people,” says Michelle. “Because they really were just trying to do what they thought was right.”

As an Acadiana native, Michelle is well aware of the importance of competitive high school sports — especially football — but also notes that student athletes come to sports for many different reasons. “I think we often need to evaluate why we care who’s on a sports team. If it's just for fun, or to teach each other teamwork, then let's stop stressing about it and try to have fun, you know?”

Especially for teens who suffer from depression (and trans youth are nearly four times more likely to than their cisgender peers), physical activity and positive engagement with other student athletes can be game-changing.

For her own part, Michelle continues to find great value in her athletic pursuits: “It just makes me feel better, like things are moving, like I’m less stagnant.” Long walks in nature, especially, fulfill her on an almost spiritual level.

“It’s as helpful to me as going to church,” she says. “So I keep doing it.”