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If you thought the GOP was done abusing women by retracting our reproductive rights, you would be wrong. Laws that go well beyond banning abortion in many states to target birth control and the prohibition of life-saving treatment for dangerous pregnancies that cannot result in a live birth have now set the stage for further invasions of women’s privacy. This week, in Ohio, it is state-sanctioned sex and gender testing that potentially applies to all female athletes.
Over the weekend, I learned that Republican legislators in that state have jammed through H.B. 151, a bill that imagines a shocking, new attack on women’s right to privacy. An omnibus education bill, it establishes standards for professional training and licensing that seem relatively uncontroversial. In addition, however, the bill bans trans athletes from participating in sports restricted to a single gender and prohibits qualified girls from competing on boys’ teams.
And here is the creepy part. H.B. 151 permits any person to identify an athlete (this would be a female athlete, of course) as potentially being trans. The accusation would result in immediately pulling that athlete from competition and forcing her to submit to a visual examination of her genitals, as well as a pelvic exam to determine that she has ovaries and a uterus. Should this exam be inconclusive, that girl would be forced to take a chromosome test and have her testosterone level measured. If that girl is deemed not female for any reason—and there are many biological and chromosomal variations even among those who present as, and believe themselves to be, gender normative—her team would have to forfeit any competition she played in.
Fact: there is precisely one trans athlete known to be competing as a woman in the entire state of Ohio. And fewer than .6% of Americans—adults and children combined—identify as transgender male or female.
Years from now, we will remember this moment as a turning point in which, to paraphrase a laughable phrase that came to encapsulate the folly of the Vietnam war, Republicans decided to save women’s sports by destroying them. The Ohio law is the best example of this yet. H.B. 151 affects girls as young as ten, and it opens the door to parents having to put their children through invasive, traumatic exams in advance of becoming competitive athletes so that, in the event of a challenge, they can foreclose an official investigation by producing a note from a physician. In fact, given the forfeiture provision, schools and athletic associations might demand that documentation as a prerequisite for participation. There is nothing in the legislation that forecloses that possibility.
In other words, the same GOP that doesn’t want girls to have sex at all is totally fine with children and teenagers having their clitorises measured, enduring a stranger’s fingers forcibly probing their vaginas, and being publicly humiliated in front of the entire school should any genetic or physical attribute appear to be “not normal.”
And don’t trust physicians to protect kids from anything. After all, until the 1950s, doctors performed clitoridectomies on girls and women who were believed to be over-sexed or were caught masturbating. You can still find many doctors willing to perform labiaplasties on women who think their vulvas are gross or tighten up vaginas that are perfectly functional. Intersex children who have indeterminate genitalia are still operated on at young ages, often shortly after birth, to make them look gender normative, regardless of their chromosomal makeup. That normative gender is usually female and involves surgical reduction of a large clitoris or a micro-penis.
Yet, against all medical evidence, the GOP insists that being male or female is simply a matter of living in the gendered bodies we were born to inhabit. H.B. 151 now goes to the Ohio State Senate and, if it succeeds there, to the governor’s desk. And the Ohio GOP is acting like they just invented women’s equality. “I am passionate about this issue because we can not allow girls’ dreams of being a gold medal athlete to be crushed by biological males stealing their opportunity,” Republican state Rep. Jena Powell told News 5 Cleveland, according to Insider reporter Natalie Musumeci.
I guarantee you that this bill, if it goes into effect, is going to be a huge problem. In addition to the attack on personal privacy and the imposition of unnecessary physical exams that present as legally-sanctioned sexual assault, we know how nutty parents are when their kids compete. As a parent of a potential female athlete put it in this excellent Twitter thread, “There are no safeguards in place to ensure that [the law] is not used maliciously. Girls who do not look feminine enough, girls of color, girls who are `too good’ are likely to be the biggest targets.”
That’s exactly right. Many girls, and their parents, in states passing anti-trans laws, may now be apprehensive about participating in sports at all. It is more likely that these laws will also encourage female athletes to become more anxious about their bodies than they already are. They will femme-up—growing their hair, shaving their legs religiously, painting their nails and wearing makeup in competition, starve themselves, and fear putting on muscle mass.
Avoiding being seen as too masculine and targeted for public humiliation and a state-sanctioned rape will now be a priority. I suspect that many elite and professional athletes already do this to prevent dealing with pervasive homophobia in women’s sports. Have you ever wondered why so many female athletes wear their hair long when short, or shoulder-length, hair would be so much easier to care for when you are a person who takes at least two showers a day?
In addition, we are seeing a copycat version of enforcement from the Texas Fetal Heartbeat law. When a state creates a law it cannot police on its own, one whose primary function is to terrorize millions of people it deputizes thousands of untrained citizens as a militia. Creating vigilantes is now part of the GOP playbook. Down the line, when this comes to the Supreme Court, do not be surprised if a state mounts a Second Amendment defense of this tactic. If a bunch of whackos who buy guns for fun count as a “well-regulated militia,” why wouldn’t mass-deputized parents of student-athletes count as one too?
Indeed, although there is no protection for targeted girls, legislators packed the bill with protections for anyone involved in an accusation. The bill prohibits civil lawsuits against school districts and accusers and creates injunctive relief for any accuser who believes they have suffered “retaliation.”
We are amidst a full-blown moral panic about trans-feminine people “destroying” the rights attached to womanhood. But creating moral panics is also a standard part of the conservative playbook. In the 1950s, it was the specter of homosexuals in government jobs, a national security issue invented on the right and then enforced by liberal Democrat Harry S Truman. In the 1950s and 1960s, as Black Americans fought for their civil rights, the idea that desegregation would lead to racial mixing dominated the conservative imaginary.
But as it became less and less morally acceptable to stoke fear about race openly, in the guise of protecting children, conservatives shifted back to gender and sexuality as a source of national harm.
In 1977, celebrity singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant launched a new culture war by successfully campaigning to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami/Dade County. During the Reagan administration AIDS, a real contagion that disproportionately affected gay men, people of color, IV drug users, and consumers of blood products, morphed into a “gay disease.” The moral panic created around AIDS and homosexuality in those years stigmatized everyone affected by it—and many not affected by it—as a source of danger to decent, right-thinking citizens. In September 1985, parents in Queens, New York, organized to keep their children home from school because authorities notified them that a single, unnamed child was HIV-positive. Around the same time, false allegations that daycare teachers were abusing children left in their care erupted in California. Hysterical satanic abuse accusations ripped through the nation’s daycare centers until the mid-1990s: dozens of falsely accused people went to prison, their assets spent on defense attorneys, and their lives ruined.
Today, accusations of organized pedophilia and child trafficking among liberal elites survive as one of the principal talking points of the QAnon conspiracy, fake news that injects moral urgency into an otherwise decentralized network of people whose faith in government is so nonexistent that they might otherwise not vote at all. But in the last two years, the GOP has even become slightly embarrassed by that folly, perhaps because employees of organizations that support them, like the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, really are putting their hands down children’s pants.
And so, absent any policy agenda, the Republicans have concocted yet another lie to mobilize their frightened base: that so many children sexed male at birth are becoming girls that being a cisgender female will mean permanent second-class citizenship status for women.
This new moral panic is nonsense, and Democrats need to pull themselves together to say so, publicly and repeatedly. Prominent journalists need to expose the lie of transgender domination in women’s sports for what it is and stop fingering their worry beads about Ivy League swimmer Lia Thomas, as if the future of women’s competitive sports—indeed, an entire gender—was wrapped up in how fast one athlete swims.
More importantly, Democratic, independent, and decent Republican voters need to pull themselves together to unite against what is essentially the state-sanctioned abuse of children. Why? Because these anti-trans bills have been written for you. Republicans are not just appealing to their conservative base but also to the fears of independent and liberal voters (particularly nice, white mothers and Title IX dads) who the GOP hopes they can peel away to vote for nice, clean MAGA fellows like Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.
This doesn’t stop in Ohio. It is also intended to appeal to you, wherever you live. Don’t be a sucker. Fight trans athletes bans.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.