Transgender athletes fight Florida’s new ban

They’ve spent months in limbo, anxiously waiting to figure out how they would be able to celebrate Pride Month 2021. They could emerge from more than a year of isolation to celebrate their identities with the rest of their community, free to live as their authentic selves. Or they would have to prepare to fight for their right to simply exist. The answer came on the first day of the month dedicated to LGBTQ+ pride, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that bans transgender athletes from participating in girls’ and women’s sports — a bill dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.” To South Florida athletes like Jazz Jennings and Oliver Echevarria, denying kids access to something they love is heartbreaking. Jennings, star of the popular TLC reality show “I Am Jazz,” was the first athlete to go through the Florida High School Athletic Association’s gender inclusion process to play as a transgender athlete after it was adopted in 2013. Echevarria, 15, is waiting for the other shoe to drop, while he and other trans athletes endure a summer of uncertainty about whether they can return to their sports teams. Jennings socially transitioned when she was 5 years old. She was already in love with sports and was playing on a co-ed soccer team. The United States Soccer Federation banned Jennings from girls’ travel soccer when she was 8. They told her she could practice with her friends on the girls’ team but would have to play on the boys’ team. She tried. But the boys teased her for being a girl, said her mother, Jeanette Jennings. She had anxiety attacks on the field, where she would freeze up and just stand there and had to be pulled off. Jennings and her family patiently escalated her case to the highest level in the United States Soccer Federation, and they won. Once Jennings got to high school and joined the girls’ varsity tennis team, they were prepared and filed all the paperwork with the FHSAA before it could become a problem. Jennings declined to say which school she attended because of concern for her family’s safety. Jennings took hormone blockers at 11 and estrogen replacement therapy when she was 12, so she never went through male puberty, her mother said. A facilitator presented her case, and a doctor verified it. “I was a little annoyed I had to go through this whole extra process when I just wanted to play tennis,” she recently told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “At the end of the day, I was allowed to. Even that sort of protocol is so much better than completely banning kids who just want to play sports and be accepted for who they are and what they like to do.” Without that avenue that allowed her to play, she would have been devastated, she said. Tennis allowed her to thrive and gave her a sense of belonging among her teammates, she said. “To take that experience away because of who you are and your identity — something you can’t control — is completely unfair,” she said. DeSantis and the bill’s sponsors argued that the law is needed to protect cisgender girls — meaning their gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth — who they say could be denied athletic opportunities if they had to compete against transgender girls. Supporters in the Legislature, including the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, said it will ensure fairness in sports. “We all know that men are stronger than women,” Stargel said. “Men are stronger. They have bigger lung capacity, stronger muscles.” Athletes caught in the crossfire say it’s anything but fair, and it will hurt all athletes, whether they’re transgender, cisgender, or intersex, meaning they were born with any of several variations in sex characteristics. The law does not include language about transgender or intersex athletes, and leaves room for anyone to accuse any athlete of being too masculine, too strong, too fast, or just not feminine enough. After the accusations, the athlete would have to present their birth certificate “at or near the time of the student’s birth” to essentially prove their gender. That’s traumatizing enough if you’ve lived your entire life as a girl. It’s even more traumatizing if you’ve spent your whole life trying to prove you are one, the athletes say. LGBTQ+ legal groups such as the Human Rights Campaign announced intentions to sue to overturn the new law. Before they can do so, the groups must determine the nature of the legal challenges, who has legal standing against the law and who the plaintiffs will be. There’s no guarantee those legalities will be worked out before the law takes effect July 1, or by the time the next school year starts. Echevarria doesn’t compete on school teams anymore. He quit track and field in middle school because of the bullying and discrimination he endured as a young transgender athlete, both on and off the team, he said.