Surrounded by children, Gov. Reynolds signs bill banning transgender girls from playing girls sports in all Iowa schools

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs HF 2309 into law in the State Capitol rotunda on Thursday, March 3, 2022, a day after the Senate passed the bill. The ban on trans girls and trans women in Iowa school athletics goes into effect immediately. — video still

“Our state has an impressive legacy of advancing women’s equality,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said on Thursday, just before she signed into law a bill banning transgender girls and women from girls’ and women’s sports in Iowa schools, colleges and universities.

HF 2416 restricts participation on all school or college girls sports teams and in all athletic events to those it defines as female, according to “the sex listed on the student’s official birth certificate.” When the bill was first introduced as HF 2309 on Feb. 16, it only applied to all public and private K-12 schools in the state. It was amended by the Republican majority on the Iowa House Education Committee to also cover “Any institution of higher education located in this state that is a member of the national collegiate athletic association, national association of intercollegiate athletics, or national junior college athletic association.”

At every stage of the bill’s advancement in both the House and Senate, only Republicans voted for it. All the Legislature’s Democrats opposed it, and during the floor vote in the House, one Republican, Rep. Michael Bergan of Dorchester, also voted against it. No Senate Republicans opposed the bill.

The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning the governor’s office sent out a news release announcing Reynolds would hold a signing ceremony for HF 2416 at noon in the Iowa State Capitol rotunda.

For the bill signing, the governor was surrounded by children and young women she said would benefit from the ban on trans athletes as their teammates or competitors.

Reynolds began her remarks by invoking the names of Iowa women who were “historic trailblazers,” claiming the bill was part of that tradition, and saying it exemplified what she considers “a fundamental principle: Great things happen when women have access to the fair and equal playing field they deserve.”

During the 15 years transgender girls have been able to participate in girls’ sports in Iowa schools, there has not been a single complaint filed regarding their participation. Proponents of HF 2416 ignored that history and instead invoked speculation about problems that might occur in the future.

“There are fears out there that women’s sports are under attack,” Rep. Skyler Wheeler, a Republican from Orange City and one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, said when the House floor debated HR 2416.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Skyler Wheeler (behind Reynolds’ left shoulder) attends the signing ceremony on March 3, 2022. — video still

Like the other Republican proponents of the bill, Wheeler presented it as a defense of women’s rights and the progress made by women and girls in school sports since the passage of Title IX in 1972. Neither Wheeler — who has said his approach to lawmaking is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible — nor any of the other Republicans pushing the bill had previously been known as advocates for women’s rights, while the members of the legislature who have well-established records as defenders of women’s rights, such as Iowa City Democrat Rep. Mary Mascher, opposed to the bill. Mascher called the ban on transgender girls “state-sanctioned bullying.”

Despite the repeated invocation of Title IX by House and Senate Republicans, none of them addressed the possibility that banning transgender girls and women from athletic events, as HF 2416 does, could cause Iowa schools to lose Title IX funding because it would likely violate federal civil rights protections for gender identity. The Legislative Services Agency (LSA) included this possibility in its fiscal analysis of the bill published Feb. 28.

Likewise, none of the bill’s promoters addressed the impact it might have on college competition. As the LSA explained, the bill’s ban “may conflict with participation rules of the NCAA and may risk eligibility and media rights or competition hosting revenues.”

Mascher had requested the LSA analysis when bill was first introduced in a House Education Subcommittee, because it requires the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to defend “at no cost” any school or school district that is sued for implementing the ban. HF 2416 also allows any student who alleges “direct or indirect harm as a result of” a failure to fully implement the ban to sue a school, school district or high school athletic association. In those cases, the Attorney General’s Office is not required to provide a defense.

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Because of the uncertain nature of possible litigation, LSA was not able to provide an estimate of how much the state, local school districts or athletic associations may have to spend defending against lawsuits.

And while the bill’s proponent were very concerned about the “fears out there” concerning so far nonexistent problems caused by allowing transgender girls to play girls’ sports, they did not engage with any of the concerns raised by medical professionals about the bill.

According to Reynolds and other Iowa Republicans, using the sex listed on a birth certificate to determine a person’s gender is a straightforward matter. But as Dr. Katie Ode, a pediatric endocrinologist with extensive experience treating transgender youths explained during the first hearing on the bill, it’s not.

“The difference between biological males and biological females is not simple and does not come down to chromosomes,” Ode told the committee members.

Ode then offered some detailed examples of the complications involved before returning to her general point.

“It is not as simple as we think it is,” she said. “The reason we use the brain to determine gender is that is the only definitive organ. The brain is gendered in early childhood. This is true for all children.”

“So it hurt my heart to hear people say so many times that science has proven that it’s easy to tell between males and females, because that isn’t true.”

At the same hearing, experts including University of Iowa Clinical Professor of Family Medicine Dr. Katie Imborek, who is co-director of UI Health Care’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Clinic, also testified on the beneficial effect participation in school sports has for transgender students, who often feels isolated from their peers.

“A recent study said that 44 percent of transgender high school students reported thoughts of suicide in the year before that study,” Imborek said. “That’s compared to 16 percent of their student peers. We know that transgender youth are at high risk of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts, substance abuse and obesity.”

“It is like we have an antidote to it. Sports are amazingly helpful. They decrease rates of obesity, they decrease rates of depression and anxiety, they decrease rates of thoughts of suicide. They increase school connectedness and feelings of belonging.”

All the healthcare professionals who testified regarding the bill were strongly opposed to it. Republican lawmakers did not ask them any questions or seek any clarification of the likely impact of the bill on young transgender Iowans.

The groundwork for passing HF 2416 began almost a year ago, when Reynolds said during an appearance on Fox News “we’re working on legislation” to ban transgender girls from participating in girls sports at school.

“I should have that to my desk hopefully by the end of this legislative session and we’ll be signing that bill into law,” she told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in April 2021.

At the time, no such bill was under consideration in the legislature.

Reynolds smiled and bantered with the children and teens surrounding her as she signed HF 2416 into law on Thursday. The governor wrote each letter of her name with a different pen, so she could hand out those pens as souvenirs of “a victory in girls’ sports in Iowa,” as Reynolds called the ban on transgender girls.

Most newly signed laws do not go into effect until the beginning of the following fiscal year or calendar year. A provision in HF 2416 made it go into effect immediately. The ban on transgender girls and women participating in sports as they have for a decade and a half began after Reynolds used the final pen to write the “s” at the end of her name.

Once the governor finished distributing souvenir pens and posing for pictures, she left the rotunda without taking questions from reporters.