Tennessee governor signs cruel bill banning trans athletes from competing in collegiate athletics

Tennessee governor Bill Lee speaks into a microphone during a sporting event

Tennessee governor Bill Lee has signed off on legislation banning trans athletes from competing on college sports teams aligning with their gender identity. 

The Republican lawmaker signed Senate Bill 2153 (SB 2153) on Friday (6 May) prohibiting trans women from participating in “intercollegiate or intramural sports that are designated for females” at publicly funded universities, colleges and other higher educational institutions. 

It also applies to students at any private university or college “whose students compete against public institutions”. 

The measure – which was introduced earlier this year alongside its companion bill in the state House (HB 2316) – also prohibits any government entity, organisation or athletic association from taking “adverse action” against a higher educational institution that complies with the law. It also prevents any actions “retaliating against a student who reports a violation of this bill”. 

Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, said this year is “on track to surprise a record number” of anti-trans bills filed by state legislatures largely in part because of “efforts by governor Bill Lee and Tennessee lawmakers” continuing their “legislative assault on the LGBTQ+ community”. 

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project and Tennessee Equality Project Foundation, added that the anti-trans legislation is “crafted from animus and ignorance” which “protects no one”. 

“This law sends a horrible message that trans and non-binary youth can be excluded from the many benefits of participating in sports,” Sanders said. “More broadly, it also stains those who are complicit and creates habits of lawmaking that endanger everyone in Tennessee.”

The new law builds upon a previous trans sports ban signed by Lee last year. The existing measure restricted students from playing on middle school and high school sports teams based on the sex listed on their birth certificates, not their gender identity. 

In November, brave trans teen Luc Esquivel announced he was suing the state because of the trans sports ban, which barred him from playing on the boy’s golf team at Farragut High School in Knoxville.

Esquivel’s lawsuit – which was brought forward by the ACLU and Lambda Legal – argued the law violated the teen’s constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and Title IX

The teen recently told Golf Digest that he has to “stop thinking” about the lawsuit and lawmakers pushing anti-trans legislation “for too long” because he “can’t make sense of this”. 

He described how the initial trans sports ban “makes me angry” because he just wanted to play the sport he loved, and then he began to consider the wider impact the law would have on others. 

“Then I was like, OK, how about other people? Not just in golf, but other sports and how they would feel if they didn’t get to play on their teams,” Esquivel said. “That’s when I said I really want to do this—for myself but also for everybody else.”

While the lawsuit was filed in late 2021, the trial date is not until the spring of 2023, Golf Digest reported. 

Despite the pending lawsuit, Lee signed into law late last month a measure that added harsher penalties to the state’s existing trans sports ban. The bill would allow Tennessee’s Department of Education to withhold a portion of state funding from school districts that fail to comply with the restrictions, NBC News reported. 

The measure didn’t specify how much funding would be withheld by the state if schools let trans athletes participate on sports teams aligning with their gender identity.