Transgender teen and adult athletes in Mississippi could be forced out of sports teams that align with their gender or give up sports altogether after the Mississippi House approved Senate Bill 2536, sending it to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk.

The Republican governor has already signaled that he plans to sign the bill into law. It requires all sports teams sponsored by public K-12 schools, colleges and universities to designate teams based on “biological sex.”

Under the law, for example, a college-age transgender man on his university’s men’s basketball team would have to switch to the women’s basketball team or forego the sport altogether.

“I will sign our bill to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities,” Gov. Tate Reeves announced in a tweet this afternoon.

In a statement today, the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign condemned lawmakers for supporting the bill, calling it the “first piece of specifically anti-transgender legislation this year to be sent to a governor’s desk.” State legislatures across the country are considering dozens of similar bills currently.

“As thousands die each day of COVID-19 and millions of Americans are out of work, some state legislatures have chosen to attack, demean and dehumanize their constituents rather than focus on delivering relief and assistance,” HRC President Alphonoso David said in today’s statement.

‘Defying the Evidence in Favor of Discrimination’

“These dangerous bills are designed to make the lives of transgender kids more difficult while they try to navigate their adolescence. Anti-transgender legislation being heard and voted on across the country are legislating against problems that simply do not exist—as even their proponents admit,” the HRC president said.

He was referring to reported instances in which lawmakers who back the anti-trans sports bill could not cite examples in their own states or localities in which sports programs have had issues with trans people on teams.

“Today, in sending S.B. 2536 to Governor Reeves, Mississippi became the first state to take the plunge by passing legislation specifically attacking transgender children,” David continued. “Mississippi is so determined to be on the wrong side of history that it is defying the evidence in favor of discrimination.”

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at a press conference
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here at a Feb. 6, 2020 press conference in Jackson, says he will sign Senate Bill 2536, which would ban transgender athletes from playing on sports teams that correspond with their gender identities. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Supporters of the legislation including its leader sponsor, Picayune Republican Sen. Angela Hill, call it the “Mississippi Fairness Act,” saying it promotes fairness for girls and women. Last year, Sen. Hill voted against a GOP-sponsored “equal pay for equal work” bill that later died in committee; Mississippi is the only state without an equal pay law.

In a Feb. 16 report on the bill, Crirec State Reporter Nick Judin cited a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which “found that between one to two years of hormone-replacement therapy was sufficient to allow equitable competition between trans-women and cis-women even at elite Olympic levels, to say nothing of high-school level sports.”

The GOP-sponsored bill passed the House today on a 81-28 vote. All votes against the bill came from Democrats, but eight members of the minority party joined the 73 Republicans who voted to pass the bill.

Democrats who voted for S.B. 2536 bill include: Rep. Cedric Burnett of Tunica; Rep. Jon Lancaster of Houston; Rep. Hester Jackson-McCray of Horn Lake; Rep. Tom Miles of Forest; Rep. Michael T. Evans of Preston; Rep. Kevin Horan of Grenada; Rep. De’Keither Stamps of Jackson; and Rep. Orlando Paden of Clarksdale.

Seven other Democratic members voted “present” and three others were either absent or did not vote. Almost all GOP members voted for the bill except for two: Rep. Missy McGee and Rep. Robin Robinson. In 2019, McGee, a Hattiesburg Republican, sponsored a bill that would have protected LGBTQ and disabled Mississippians under state hate crimes laws. It died in committee.

Mississippi Bill Copies Contested Idaho Law

In his tweet today, Gov. Reeves claimed President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order banning discrimination against transgender people in public schools and institutions made the new law necessary. Biden’s executive order was an effort to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock v. Clayton ruling that found federal law protects transgender people against certain forms of discrimination.

“It’s crazy we have to address it, but the Biden E.O. forced the issue. Adults? That’s on them. But the push for kids to adopt transgenderism is just wrong,” Reeves wrote today.

But Senate Bill 2536 predates Biden’s executive order—and his presidency—by at least two days. Donald Trump was still in the White House when Sen. Angela Hill, the bill’s primary author, introduced S.B. 2536 on Jan. 18.

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin (right) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley (left), sign an executive order rescinding a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Five days earlier, on his first day in office, he signed an order barring public schools and other institutions from discriminating against transgender people. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

The language in the bill is significantly older, though. Sen. Hill, a Picayune Republican, appears to have borrowed key language for her bill from Idaho House Bill 500, a piece of legislation that lawmakers in that state passed in and the governor signed into law in March 2020.

Interscholastic, intercollegiate, intramural, or club athletic teams or sports that are sponsored by a public primary or secondary school, a public institution of higher education, or any school or institution whose students or teams compete against a public school or institution of higher education shall be expressly designated as one of the following based on biological sex: (a) “Males, men, or boys”; (b) “Females, women, or girls”; or (c) “Coed or mixed.” 

The Mississippi bill reads:

Interscholatisc or intramural athletic teams or sports that are sponsored by a public primary or secondary school or any school that is a member of the Mississippi High School Activities Association or public institution of higher education or any higher education institution that is a member of the NCAA, NAIA or NJCCA shall be expressly designated as one of the following based on biological sex: (a) “Males,” “men” or “boys”; (b) “Females,” “women” or “girls”; or (c) “Coed” or “mixed.”

Other sections of the Mississippi and Idaho bills also match, including ones prohibiting schools from retaliating against students who report non-compliance with the ban on transgender students from sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Alliance Defending Freedom Helped Craft Legislation

Last year, Bloomberg Law reported that the Idaho bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt, said the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing group known for pushing anti-LGBTQ policies in statehouses across the country, helped her craft the legislation.

“‘Nobody had any legislation like this. No one had anything that would work,’ Ehardt said. But eventually she found that ADF’s model legislation might do the trick, she said,” Bloomberg reported last October.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has previously helped craft legislation in Mississippi, too. In 2014, the Jackson Free Press reported that the ADF was behind S.B. 2681, a “religious freedom” bill opposed by LGBTQ rights groups that then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed. Members of the ADF-linked American Family Association joined Bryant for the bill’s signing.

De'Keither Stamps and President Biden shake hands
Mississippi House Rep. De'Keither Stamps, a Jackson Democrat, is one of only eight members of his party who voted in favor of Senate Bill 2536. He is seen here shaking hands with then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2019. Biden signed an executive order banning discrimination against transgender people in public schools on Jan. 20, 2021. Photo courtesy Rep. De'Keither Stamps

In a statement today, the AFA praised the bill, claiming with no evidence that “without this legislation in Mississippi, the state would be on the path of having only male sports and coed sports. Should Gov. Reeves sign the bill into law, girls’ sports in Mississippi will be preserved and protected.”

ADF later helped Gov. Bryant defend House Bill 1523, a similar “religious liberty” bill that declared it legal for certain businesses to cite their religious beliefs as a motive for discriminating against providing services to gay and transgender people.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization that brings business interests and state lawmakers together to write corporate-friendly legislation. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, sits on ALEC’s Board of Directors and served as the board’s president last year.

In January 2019, the ADF and ALEC joined the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy teamed up for a “Liberty Luncheon” in Jackson focused on “Campus Free Speech.”

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy issued a statement endorsing S.B. 2536 on Feb. 5, saying the “fairness act will protect men and women’s sports.” Even in the statement, though, the think tank admitted that “there have not been any cases of those born as males competing against girls in Mississippi,” but said the legislation is important because “the issue has become a nationwide one.”

‘History Will Not Look Kindly On This Moment in Mississippi’

In its statement denouncing the bill today, the Human Rights Campaign warned that the bill could cost Mississippi in legal fees and possible economic sanctions. 

“Idaho is the only state to have passed an anti-trans sports ban to date, and that law was swiftly suspended by a federal district court,” HRC said. “The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) came out against the Idaho bill and others like it and subsequently moved planned tournament games out of Idaho.”

In 2017, HRC noted, the Texas Association of Business warned that the Lonestar State could lose 185,000 jobs and $8.5 billion due to NCAA and professional sporting event cancellations and other economic boycotts if it passed an anti-trans “bathroom bill” like the North Carolina one.

After the state faced economic sanctions and the loss of millions of dollars in sports tournaments, lawmakers passed and Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill retiring Mississippi's old Confederate-themed state flag in June 2020. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves.

Mississippi lawmakers have faced similar predicaments before. Lawmakers finally agreed to retire Mississippi’s old Confederate-themed state flag last year amid mounting pressure from national college sports organizations and the threat of losing sporting events that bring millions into the state. After Mississippi passed its “religious liberty” bills in the mid-2010s, several states, including New York, banned travel to the Magnolia State.

Mississippi is hurting itself with the new bill, HRC President Alphonso David said in his statement today.

“There is simply no justification for banning transgender girls and women from participating in athletics other than discrimination. Like all girls, transgender girls just want to play and be part of a team with their friends,” he said. “History will not look kindly on this moment in Mississippi.”

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].