Florida House passes contentious transgender sports ban

TALLAHASSEE — The GOP-controlled Florida House on Wednesday passed controversial legislation banning transgender athletes from playing girls’ sports, shifting attention to the state Senate where final approval is needed to send the bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The 77-40 mostly party-line vote, with all but one Democrat opposing, came one day after House Democrats held up a floor session for hours attempting to scale back the measure. GOP lawmakers say the bill is needed to protect the sanctity of women’s sports, but opponents contend it would only “legalize bullying” for transgender students.

“HB 1475 is purely political, and it plays on the fears and the ignorance about the transgender community in order to score partisan points,” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando), an openly gay lawmaker, told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

House and Senate Republicans in Florida have seized on women’s sports as a priority in 2021, following the path of more than 20 other GOP-leaning states that are using the issue to limit transgender rights. LGBTQ advocacy groups like Equality Florida are aligned with the majority of Democrats in opposing the legislation, arguing it would lead to increased stigma and misinformation surrounding transgender students.

The idea issue was magnified on Monday when the NCAA put states like Florida on notice, warning that locations that don’t treat all student athletes with “dignity and respect” could be ineligible to host future championship games.

Democrats attempted to leverage the NCAA’s stance against Republicans by cautioning that Florida could lose out on millions of dollars in revenue should events move elsewhere, similar to how the MLB pulled its All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s new voting rights laws. But that failed to sway the House’s GOP majority, who maintained the bill protects fairness in women’s sports.

“There is an inherent, biological, undeniable difference between men and women, boys and girls,” said state Rep. Traci Koster (R-Tampa). “Simply put: we were designed differently.”

Democrats pushed back against that rhetoric, insisting the legislation is aimed at LGBTQ rights and not girls’ athletics.

“Sports have become another avenue to attack the rights of trans people,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando). “And those efforts have caused incredible harm to trans youth, who, like all kids, especially in the middle of a pandemic, deserve compassion and support.”

Dubbed the Fairness in Women's Sports Act, the House bill lays out that female sports teams in Florida are specifically for “biological” women and girls while also creating a path for handling gender disputes by requiring a medical professional to verify a student’s sex. The law would apply to students in K-12 and higher education.

Democrats on Tuesday lobbed 19 amendments at the proposal during its initial House floor hearing, spending three hours going back and forth with one other in questions and debate, begging Republicans to engage with them.

One GOP lawmaker did step up to bash the NCAA, claiming Democrats were mistakenly holding the organization up as a “moral compass.” The Florida Legislature has a history of sparring with the NCAA, including last session when lawmakers passed a bill allowing student athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, circumventing the organization's long-standing policies.

One House member suggested the states that pass transgender sports bans should unite and create their own athletic association to rebuke the NCAA.

“We know exactly what they’ll do if this law passes,” state Rep. Chip LaMarca (R-Lighthouse Point) said Tuesday. “The same thing they do for our student athletes right now — and that’s nothing. They treat them like free labor.”

With the House bill officially passed, it’s now the Senate’s turn take up its measure. FL SB2012 (21R) was slated for its final hearing on Wednesday but got temporarily postponed by sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) due to the packed Rules Committee agenda.

Stargel’s bill, which breaks from the House version by allowing athletes who declare as female to participate in sports if their testosterone levels are below a certain mark, could resurface at a meeting on April 20.

“All eyes are on the Florida Senate to stop this cruel legislation and protect the transgender youth this bill vilifies,” said Jon Harris Maurer, Public Policy Director for Equality Florida.