Wisconsin Assembly approves transgender sports and gender-affirming surgery bans

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Assembly have passed legislation that would limit transgender athletes' participation in high school and college sports and outlaw gender-affirming surgery on minors.

Associated Press

October 12, 2023

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Wisconsin Assembly members sit in high-backed leather chairs on multiple rows of long wood desks arrayed in a semi circle, in a room with marble masonry and double doors with oval windows.

Members of the Wisconsin Assembly sit in their desks for a floor session on Oct. 12, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. The Republican majority in the Assembly passed three bills that would outlaw gender-affirming surgery on minors and limit transgender athletes' participation in high school and college sports. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly signed off Oct. 12 on contentious legislation limiting transgender youth participation on sports teams and outlawing gender-affirming surgery for minors despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ vow to veto proposals.

GOP legislators across the United States want to limit the rights of transgender youths, sparking fierce pushback from the transgender community and triggering discrimination lawsuits along the way. Now the battle has come to Wisconsin.

The legislation goes next to the Republican-controlled state Senate. If that chamber passes the package it would go next to Evers, who has promised the bills will never become law.

“We’re going to veto every single one of them,” Evers told transgender youth and their supporters who gathered at the state Capitol on Oct. 4 for packed hearings on the proposals. “I know you’re here because you’re pissed off and you want to stop it, and you will stop it, and I’ll help you stop it.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at a news conference early Oct. 12 that advancing the bills in the face of an inevitable veto is still “the right thing to do for Wisconsin families.”

At least 22 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, and most of those states face lawsuits. Gender-affirming surgery for minors is rare, with fewer than 3,700 performed in the U.S. on patients ages 12 to 18 from 2016 through 2019, according to a study published in August.

Nearly two dozen states have passed legislation limiting athletes to playing on teams that match the gender they were assigned at birth.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association requires transgender athletes to undergo hormone therapy before they can play on the teams of their choice. The association’s policy is modeled after NCAA requirements for transgender athletes.

The Wisconsin legislation includes three bills. One would limit high school athletes to playing on teams that match the gender they were assigned at birth. The second would apply the same restriction to college athletes. The third would bar doctors from performing gender-affirming surgery on minors.

Multiple groups have registered in opposition to the Wisconsin legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the American Pediatrics Academy’s Wisconsin chapter and the Wisconsin School Social Workers Association. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference and Wisconsin Family Action, a conservative group that advocates for marriage and traditional family structure, are the only organizations registered in support.

All three bills passed on 63-35 votes. No Democrats voted for any of the bills.

The rhetoric leading up to the votes was raw. Vos called gender-affirming surgery “mutilation” and likened it to lobotomies.

“It’s interesting if you go back in history, the way to treat mental illness 50 to 100 years ago was a lobotomy,” he said at a news conference ahead of the debate. “And at the time that was settled science. That was just the way it was supposed to be. We can go back to example after example after example where the human mind has been opened to say there are different ways of doing things and it shouldn’t necessarily be a one-size fits all solution because we have settled science.”

Democrats accused Republicans of using transgender youth to open another front in the country’s culture wars.

Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, who says she is queer, called Vos’ remarks “disgusting and completely misguided.”

“Transgender individuals deserve to be treated with respect and must be able to access the medical care that they and their care teams deem necessary,” she said in an email to The Associated Press.

Rep. Lisa Subeck ticked off a list of medical groups that oppose the bill. She accused Republicans of substituting their fears of transgender culture for physicians and families’ judgement.

“Plain and simple, this is wrong,” Subeck said. “This is backwards.”

Republicans took turns arguing that transgender girls are stronger and faster and could injure and take scholarships from the athletes they’d be competing with unless restrictions are passed.

“We want to make sure women’s sports have a chance in hell to be able to compete after all the training, all the workouts, all the sacrifice,” Rep. Janel Brandtjen said.

The bills’ chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. Barbara Dittrich, told an Assembly committee on Oct. 4 that she knows of only six transgender athletes in Wisconsin. Democrats argued there’s no real issue with transgender high school athletes in Wisconsin and painted the bill as another form of discrimination.

“The mere introduction of policy to separate children based on their identity is inherently disrespectful and harmful to the people we have pledged to serve,” Rep. Kristina Shelton said. “Their lives are not up for debate.”

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