‘Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Girls’: Idaho Is First State to Bar Some Transgender Athletes

Idaho has become the first state in the United States to bar transgender girls from participating in girls’ and women’s sports and to legalize the practice of asking girls and women to undergo sex testing in order to compete. 

The house bill, known as the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, was signed by Gov. Brad Little on Monday. Governor Little also signed a bill that prohibits transgender people from changing their birth certificates to match their gender identities.

While many states have introduced bills to restrict the participation of transgender athletes, Idaho is the first state to have passed such legislation into law.

Despite a movement in broader society toward endorsing transgender rights, supporters of the Idaho laws said they did not accept people identifying as anything but what was written on their birth certificates. They said the laws were aimed primarily at athletes who were identified as boys on their birth certificates but now identify as female and wish to compete as such.

“Boys are boys and girls are girls,” State Senator Lee Heider said after the bills passed through the Senate two weeks ago. “No doctor, no judge, no Department of Health and Welfare is going to change that reality.”

Representative Barbara Ehardt, the sponsor of the bill, said she began working on it 20 months ago in an effort to “protect opportunities for girls and women.”

“We physically cannot compete against biological boys, we just cannot, and once those opportunities are lost, they are gone, you cannot get those back,” Representative Ehardt, a former college basketball player and N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball coach, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This could literally tear teams and communities apart.”

Some major companies with large facilities in Idaho, including Chobani and Hewlett-Packard, called on the governor, who, like the bills’ sponsors, is a Republican, to veto the bill.

The bills were signed on Monday, a day before the International Transgender Day of Visibility, and passed as Idaho recorded its largest single-day jump in coronavirus cases.

The new laws are expected to face lengthy and expensive legal challenges. In 2018, a federal court found unconstitutional a policy similar to Idaho’s new law barring changes on birth certificates. The state attorney general’s office expressed concern over the constitutionality of the restrictions on sports participation, writing that, among other things, the legislation could violate the federal law known as Title IX that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal financing.

The Idaho legislation points to an emerging conflict over whether or how to regulate transgender athletes. The debate has become a wedge issue especially among conservatives trying to rally support for President Trump.

Those who want to limit the participation of transgender athletes have argued that transgender women have a competitive advantage because of their testosterone levels, though those levels can change in hormone treatment. Athletes like the Olympic marathon runner Paula Radcliffe and the tennis star Martina Navratilova have contended that athletes with higher natural levels of testosterone are able to outperform their competitors, especially in some track and field events and in weight lifting competitions. Navratilova later backed awayfrom that view.

Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic gold medal runner from South Africa, is the highest profile athlete to have faced a barrage of criticism, tests and, most recently, restrictionsover her sex. She has identified as female since birth and has naturally occurring elevated levels of testosterone. Last July, she lost her challenge of a policy enacted by track and field’s governing body that barred her from some events unless she underwent hormone therapy.

But the science on the subject remains highly debated and inconclusive. A high natural testosterone level is not a one-step advantagein and of itself. Many have questioned why one physical trait — testosterone level — is thought to be an unfair advantage, when many of the world’s best athletes possess others — Michael Phelps’s flipper-size feet, for example — that propel them to unthinkable world records.

The Idaho High School Activities Association has a policy in place on the inclusion of transgender athletes that mirrors that of the N.C.A.A. and the International Olympic Committee. The N.C.A.A. recommends that schools require transgender athletes to complete one year of hormone treatment before competing on a female team. Similarly, the I.O.C. guidelines require transgender athletes competing on a female team to demonstrate testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per liter for one year.

Idaho’s law, however, is a blanket ban on the participation of transgender girls in sports.

The law includes a provision that allows for anyone to file a claim questioning the sex of an athlete. The adjudication process could lead to sex testing that would allow for genital exams, genetic testing and hormone testing. “They can have a DNA test to determine chromosomes, and those tests are as cheap as $50,” Representative Ehardt said. “And again, if there are questions beyond that, there are hormone, urine and blood tests that are much more common.”

Intersex athletes, individuals born with a range of sex characteristics, would also be subject to added scrutiny. “If there was a situation such as that, that person’s doctor would no doubt already be familiar and already be in a position to solve and indicate if the DNA was not a female,” Representative Ehardt continued. She called such a hypothetical situation a “rare, rare, rare case.”

Studies have suggested that 1.7 percent of the population has intersex traits.

There have been a record number of bills placing restrictions on transgender people nationwide since the beginning of the year. A bill similar to Idaho’s was introduced in Arizona, only to see a genital testing provision dropped before the bill was passed in the Arizona House in early March. The practice of gender verification testing has been banned by the International Olympic Committee since 1999.

Kathy Griesmyer, a policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Idaho chapter, said the testing provision not only discriminated against transgender youth, but also opened the door for widespread abuse. “There is now a law you can use to attack any successful female athlete,” she said, noting that exact guidelines of these processes are not yet clear. “And to think this is about helping girls, when we know it’s subjecting girls to an invasive examination of their bodies at a vulnerable time of their development.”

Lindsay Hecox, a first-year student at Boise State University and a former high school track and cross-country runner, said the bill further “others,” or marginalizes, transgender athletes like herself.

“I’m just a simple college student who just wants to run and doesn’t want to have my rights taken away,” she said, adding that she is taking the year off from competitive running to focus on transitioning. “Being trans shouldn’t make me a big news story, it shouldn’t make a spectacle. I’m just a normal person.”

A recent survey found that 12 percent of transgender girls and 14 percent of transgender boys play team sports compared with the national average of 68 percent of all youth. When states enact policies that create barriers for transgender athletes, the number of all L.G.B.T.Q. athletes in youth sports further declines.

“We don’t want to have any advantage,” Ms. Hecox said on Tuesday. “All I want to do is run, have a team, have friends on the team, and all try together. There’s no vindictiveness here of me trying to take away a girl’s scholarship or trophy or places.”