Governor Kim Reynolds thrilled conservatives when she announced on Fox News last week that she wants to sign a bill banning transgender youth from competing on sports teams not matching their gender assigned at birth.
Defending the discriminatory policy during a news conference on May 5, Reynolds claimed five times that concerns about "fairness" are driving her commitment to address the issue.
This mean-spirited play to the GOP base has several dimensions. None of them are grounded in fairness.
No one repeats rehearsed talking points better than Reynolds. So when Clark Kauffman of Iowa Capital Dispatch asked why the governor hadn't raised this apparent priority earlier in the legislative session, Reynolds was ready: "Well, I think it's an issue of fairness. Do we have women's and girls' sports or not? So I believe that." She claimed she's had "an ongoing conversation" with Republican legislative leaders about a bill.
The Des Moines Register's Nick Coltrain pointed out that members of the transgender community see these bills as hurtful, sending a message that they are not accepted for who they are. He asked if the governor had spoken to any members of the transgender community.
"It doesn't say that," Reynolds objected.
But it says that, you know, it's a fairness issue. And we want to make sure that they can compete and have the same opportunities. Is there girls' sports or is there not girls' sports? And so I have said that I believe that this is a fairness issue and this is one of the ways that we can address that. And if a bill gets to my desk, I will sign it.
"Fairness to whom?" David Pitt of the Associated Press asked next. "Girls," Reynolds said.
Pitt asked about the kids who would be excluded from participating. "It is a fairness issue. We either have girls' sports or we don't," Reynolds responded, her tone becoming more defensive and defiant.
They have the right to compete, and they should have the right to qualify for scholarships, to be able to maybe, you know, help pay for their higher education experience. And that's a part of the discussion. So they have a right to compete and to be entitled to scholarships, and they should be able to compete with girls.
Rachel Droze of WOI-TV asked whether some specific case prompted the governor to push for this legislation. "This is something we've been talking about with legislators throughout the session," Reynolds said.
"But why?" Droze wondered. "Because it's a fairness issue, that's why," the governor said, laughing.
These things are not "fairness":
Punching down on vulnerable kids.
LGBTQ youth are already marginalized in many ways. Research has shown they are more likely to experience suicidal ideation and self-harm. Transgender youth in particular have higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The Trevor Project's 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found:
- 40% of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered suicide
- 68% of LGBTQ youth reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in the past two weeks, including more than 3 in 4 transgender and nonbinary youth
- 48% of LGBTQ youth reported engaging in self-harm in the past twelve months, including over 60% of transgender and nonbinary youth [...]
- 86% of LGBTQ youth said that recent politics have negatively impacted their well-being
- Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected
Reynolds has often highlighted concerns about children's mental health in the context of reopening schools for in-person instruction. But she's eager to deprive trans kids of a chance to play sports. And more broadly, whether she admits it or not, she is sending a clear message: transgender kids don't deserve the same dignity and consideration as their cisgender peers.
UPDATE: A reader reminded me that a transgender teen in Fairfield took his own life following an extended local controversy over school bathroom policies.
Inventing problems that don't exist.
In the fantasy world Reynolds pretends to believe in, treating trans kids fairly would deprive cis girls of "the right to compete" and "the right to qualify for scholarships" to help pay for higher education.
Who has been unable to apply for a scholarship because their high school sports teams were inclusive? Has a single trans girl ever won any athletic scholarship to an Iowa college or university?
UPDATE: Tom Witosky pointed out, "elite athletes seeking scholarships compete in high-level competitions outside of high school sports to develop skills and attract attention. No female athlete gets a scholarship anymore by competing solely in high school."
Portraying cis girls as incapable of competing against trans peers.
Tom Witosky, a longtime sports reporter for the Des Moines Register, commented on Twitter following the governor's news conference,
This is nothing more than a replay of the era when women were considered second-class citizens. True athletes -- male or female -- don't fear competition, they embrace it. To call this a fairness issue is sophistry.
Cedar Rapids resident and former high school athlete Sara Riley also found it "offensive" to suggest that cis female athletes need state protection against transgender peers. "Thanks, but no thanks, Iowa women athletes don’t need your paternalistic protection," Riley tweeted.
One Iowa's director of policy and advocacy Keenan Crow noted that transgender athletes have been allowed to participate in the Olympic trials since 2003, but not one has qualified for the Olympics in any sport.
Dressing up pandering as principled.
Everyone knows why GOP legislative leaders and Reynolds are suddenly focused an idea that has never advanced from any Iowa House or Senate committee, and would affect a tiny fraction of the state's athletes. It's the same reason Republicans tried to get anti-marriage equality initiatives on state ballots during the 2000s.
Republicans need high turnout in the midterm elections, and they believe stirring up animus toward LGBTQ people will help them politically. Like Adam Serwer wrote in an award-winning 2018 essay, "The cruelty is the point" for many of Donald Trump's fans.
Don't take my word for it: listen to conservative activists themselves. From Nico Lang's reporting on the record number of anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures in 2021:
Dan Cox, the director of the conservative public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute, said that attacking trans kids “seems to be a winning issue for Republicans, at least in the places where they’re fighting it most aggressively.”
“On the Democratic side, this is not an issue that really excites the base,” he claimed in an interview with Axios. “But on the right, I think these issues are really, really salient, so it tends to fire up folks disproportionately on the right than the left.” [...]
Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, recently told Politico that she thinks trans student athletics is the “wedge issue that will bring suburban women back to the polls and increase their support for Republicans.”
“Republicans would be foolish not to lean into it,” Nance said.
"This issue will help [the] GOP win midterms,” said Stephen Miller, the former Trump White House aide who helped advise the former president on his CPAC speech.
Some Republicans say touting the issue will unite two key elements of a winning electoral coalition: the party’s socially conservative base, which mostly rejects the expansion of gay and transgender rights, and more moderate voters in the suburbs, who are less reliable GOP supporters but may revolt against what they see as Democratic overreach.
Caring mainly about people who resemble your loved ones.
Reynolds seems to have trouble empathizing with Iowans who don't share her social, cultural, or religious background. The NAACP worked for years to convince Reynolds and her predecessor Governor Terry Branstad that Iowa's felon disenfranchisement policies contributed to huge disparities. Yet the governor made "second chances" a priority only after a man with a felony conviction approached her at her grandson's basketball game to say thanks for restoring his voting rights.
After signing a 2019 law designed to overturn a landmark Iowa Supreme Court ruling for transgender equality, Reynolds had little to say about why she wanted to prevent trans Iowans on Medicaid from accessing medically necessary surgery. Instead, she kept offering variations on, "this has been the state's position for years."
During last week's Fox News town hall, the governor explained, "I'm a mom of three daughters and a grandmother of three granddaughters who compete. And it's the right (thing) to do. They should have the same opportunities."
Has she talked with any transgender kids or their parents about what extracurricular activities mean to them? She dodged Coltrain's question at the May 5 news conference. But she repeatedly referred to her conversations with (white, cisgender, male, Christian) legislative leaders.
If Reynolds were truly committed to "fairness," she would consult not only with allies who stand to benefit politically, but also with those who would be devastated by a trans sports bill.
P.S.- Iowa's civil rights law has prohibited most forms of discrimination on the basis of gender identity since 2007. So you may be wondering how any bill with this express purpose could be legal. I learned recently that a code section exempts "athletic programs" from a list of unfair or discriminatory practices in education. So unfortunately, Iowa Republicans probably can enact a law requiring sports teams to exclude trans children or young adults, if they can round up the votes in the legislature.
P.P.S.- During her four years as governor, Reynolds has evaded dozens of questions about whether she supports this or that idea, claiming she won't comment on legislation until she and her staff have had a chance to analyze the final wording. No reporter should ever accept that excuse again.
Kauffman asked the governor why she's promised to sign this bill without having a version of it on her desk. Her explanation was weak: "As we saw this continue to happen, I have had conversations with the leadership, we've looked at various languages, we want to make sure that, you know, we try to get it right."
Top image: Screenshot of Governor Kim Reynolds during a May 5 news conference.