Civil rights groups sue over Tennessee law aimed at transgender student athletes

‘I just want to play,’ says the Knox County teen in the lawsuit

Basketballs, soccer balls, and a blue football sit in a shopping cart.
A new Tennessee law says athletic participation “must be determined by the student’s sex at the time of the student’s birth, as indicated on the student’s original birth certificate.” (Alan Petersime / Chalkbeat)

Civil rights groups representing a 14-year-old Tennessee student are challenging a new state law restricting the participation of transgender athletes in middle and high school sports.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court in Nashville on behalf of Luc Esquivel, a transgender boy who had hoped to try out for the boys’ golf team at Farragut High School in Knox County during his freshman year.

His plan was halted by the 2021 law that says athletic participation “must be determined by the student’s sex at the time of the student’s birth, as indicated on the student’s original birth certificate.”

“That crushed me,” Luc said in a news release from the plaintiffs. “I just want to play, like any other kid.”

The lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Tennessee asks the federal court to intercede. Similar laws passed in Idaho and West Virginia have been temporarily blocked by rulings in those states, and the Idaho case is awaiting a decision by a U.S. appeals court.

While backers of the Tennessee legislation focused on banning transgender girl athletes from participating in girls’ sports, the law affects transgender boy students as well.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who signed the bill into law, declined Thursday to comment when asked about the lawsuit and whether transgender boys should be allowed to play boys’ sports.

Luc’s mother, Shelley Esquivel, said she was angry about the impact on her family.

“A mother wants to see their kids happy, thriving, enjoying being a kid. High school sports are an important part of that,” she said. “I know how much Luc was looking forward to playing on the boys’ golf team. It’s heartbreaking to see him miss out on this high school experience, and it’s painful for a parent to see their child subjected to discrimination because of who they are.”

Supporters argued the law was needed to preserve women’s athletics and ensure fair competition. They said transgender girls who were identified as male at birth would have an unfair advantage because they are are naturally stronger, faster, and bigger than girls who were identified as female at birth.

But Democrats said the legislation was about discrimination, not fairness. They also warned that Tennessee would face expensive litigation based on Title IX of federal education law that prohibits sex-based discrimination.

Prior to the bill’s passage, leaders for Tennessee’s athletic governing associations said no schools had raised questions about the eligibility of transgender athletes.

“[Tennessee lawmakers] could not identify a single instance of a Tennessee student facing any harm from a transgender athlete playing sports,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement. “However, the emotional cost of this law to transgender student athletes is tremendous.”

The legal challenge in Tennessee is one of several from LGBTQ advocates to laws passed this spring by the GOP-controlled legislature.

In August, the Human Rights Campaign sued the state on behalf of a 14-year-old transgender boy and a 6-year-old transgender girl over another new law restricting which school bathrooms transgender students can use.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the governor’s response.

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