Why One State Senator Is Proposing "Genital Inspections" For Teen Athletes

Photographed by Winnie Au.
A South Dakota legislator is worried enough about transgender teens that he thinks genital inspections are an acceptable way to determine on which sports team a high school athlete should play.

State Rep. Roger Hunt, a Republican, has introduced a bill to the state’s legislature that would force trans student-athletes to submit their original birth certificates and undergo a visual genital inspection before they would be allowed to join a sports team. Why would a grown man want to pass a law that forces children to strip naked? The South Dakota High School Activities Association board of directors changed its policies last year to be trans-inclusive, and opponents of the more tolerant policy have been trying to undo it ever since.

Under the current athletics policy, parents must notify a school of their child’s gender identity, the school verifies that the student’s gender identity is different from that on the birth certificate, and a healthcare provider has to confirm the student’s gender expression. Only after those steps, and only after the school decides there is enough evidence, can students compete on the team of their expressed gender.

Although Hunt's proposal is better than an outright ban, it’s a high bar for a young person to clear, especially when many young trans people may not be able to come out to their parents safely. Also, in general, South Dakota is a particularly tough place to be trans: The state doesn’t have basic legal protections against discrimination, which renders that old boogeyman of people misrepresenting themselves as a way to sneak into a locker room as being pretty absurd.

The bill is also a glaring example of the sort of transphobia that most young people face as they learn about themselves and decide how to express their gender, but it’s also behind the times because of its focus on genitals. Pop-culture icons Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have both explained repeatedly why focusing on what genitalia a person has is intrusive, offensive, and totally unconnected to what gender a person is.

The story of Houston Judge Phyllis Frye, an early leader in the fight for trans rights who is now 67, shows that fights over bathrooms and access to same-gender sports teams have been going on for decades. Activists crafted the International Bill of Gender Rights, which was adopted at a transgender legal conference in 1996 and made it clear that separating gender identity from physical sexual characteristics is essential for trans rights. “All human beings have the right to define their own gender identity regardless of chromosomal sex, genitalia, assigned birth sex, or initial gender role,” it said.

The idea that gender identity isn’t tied to physical characteristics is nearly 50 years old; in 1966, Dr. Harry Benjamin published a book pioneering the concept, and he believed doctors should help patients make their physical characteristics match what those patients felt was correct.

As Laverne Cox told Time in 2014, “Not everybody who is born feels that their gender identity is in alignment with what they’re assigned at birth, based on their genitalia. If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is okay, and they should not be denied health care. They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence.”

Some states and local governments have made progress, but there are no federal laws against housing or employment discrimination towards trans people, and recent moves by conservatives to pass “religious freedom” laws that could protect people who discriminate prove that equality and acceptance are still a long way off.

In the end, the South Dakota bill may not be necessary, but not because there’s been a change of heart. Backlash against the high school activities association has been so severe that the board is meeting next week to revisit the policy.
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