Bill adding penalties to transgender athlete ban heading to Tennessee governor’s desk

Fifth graders participate in Mrs. Oszurek’s P.E. class at Wesley Elementary School in Middletown, CT, October 5, 2020.
Several Tennessee bills aim to prohibit transgender female athletes from playing girls sports in school. (Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Tennessee moved a step closer Monday to pulling state funding from K-12 public schools if they allow transgender youth to participate in girls sports.

A bill that cleared the state Senate by a vote of 26-5 attaches financial penalties to a 2021 law that prohibited trans athletes from competing on middle and high school teams based on their gender identity. The legislation passed the House last month.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who called last year’s law a step “to preserve women’s athletics and ensure fair competition,” is expected to sign the funding measure into law.

Several civil rights groups have since challenged the 2021 ban in court in a case that is tentatively set for trial next year.

A similar bill that would ban transgender athletes at the college level from participating in women’s sports in Tennessee also cleared the Senate on Monday. That measure is awaiting action before a House finance subcommittee.

Rules governing transgender athletes returned to the spotlight this year when University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a trans woman, began smashing records.

In January, in line with the U.S. and international Olympic committees, the NCAA adopted a sport-by-sport approach for determining participation by transgender athletes.

Sponsors of both bills in Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature argued transgender females — because their assigned sex at birth was male — are naturally stronger, faster, and bigger than transgender women, giving them an unfair advantage in sports.

“This legislation is all about setting a level playing field for all of our female athletes so they have fair competition,” said Sen. Joey Hensley, a Hohenwald Republican who co-sponsored the K-12 bill with Rep. John Ragan, a Republican from Oak Ridge.

Opponents said the legislation is about discrimination, not fairness, and is unnecessary and even dangerous.

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“There’s no indication this is a problem in Tennessee schools, but … there are kids who feel targeted by this legislature,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville. “And these are oftentimes kids who are struggling with a lot that most of us don’t understand and oftentimes are more likely to be at risk of committing suicide than anybody else.”

According to an analysis by The Associated Press, Tennessee passed more laws last year aimed at transgender people than any other state in the nation. One law, for instance, puts public schools at risk of losing lawsuits if they let transgender students or employees use multiperson bathrooms or locker rooms that do not reflect their assigned sex at birth.

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at

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