By Nico Lang -
Special to the SGN
No one in Tennessee seemed all that surprised when Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed an anti-Trans sports bill into law on Friday, March 26. Last month Lee hinted at his support for the legislation, which is one of more than 40 similarly themed proposals introduced across the country in 2021, by claiming that Trans inclusion "will destroy women's sports." During his 2018 gubernatorial run, he opposed marriage equality and LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination laws while claiming on his campaign site that "there are two sexes: female and male."
But what took aback Marisa Richmond, a longtime Trans politico who lives in Nashville, is just how "determined" she says Lee was to "criminalize trans youth and their coaches." "It only passed in the House Monday, and then both speakers have to sign it and send it to the governor," she tells them. "He didn't waste any time. Almost as soon as they got to him, he signed it."
Senate Bill 228 is the third law enacted in the past month targeting Transgender student athletics, following a pair of measures signed in Arkansas and Mississippi. Its proponents, such as Tennessee state Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Dist. 64), claimed the bill was necessary to "preserve women's athletics and ensure fair competition." Upon signing it, Lee further pointed the finger at President Biden, tweeting that a January executive order instructing federal agencies to follow the Supreme Court's 2020 ruling on LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination stands "in opposition to the years of progress made under Title IX."
Despite backers' claims that SB 228 benefits cisgender female athletes, critics predict the newly signed law will have the opposite effect - and that the overall impact stands to be disastrous. While the Mississippi and Arkansas equivalents single out tTrans girls, Tennessee's version applies to all Transgender youth attending public middle and high schools. The bill text states that participation in athletics will be "determined by the student's sex at the time of the student's birth, as indicated on the student's original birth certificate."
According to Aislinn Bailey, a board member with the local community group Tri-Cities Transgender, the law could end up "creating the situation" that its supporters said they hoped to prevent. In Texas, Trans student wrestler Mack Beggs dominated his female opponents after being forced to compete against girls in 2017 and 2018, winning consecutive state championships.
"Trans boys will now be competing on the girls' team," Bailey tells them, before remarking of the legislation's supporters, "They don't think these things through. They're not educated."
The potential issues with the law are legion, according to Trans community members. Dahron Johnson, a Nashville-based chaplain and amateur cyclist, notes that the law mandates that the "student or the student's parent or guardian must pay any costs associated with providing the evidence" in cases where an individual's gender identity is in dispute. If a student brings a complaint alleging they were beaten in a match because their opponent is Transgender, Johnson says the accuser would "not have to pay any of the repercussions," even if the claims aren't true.
"The specifics are so problematic," Johnson tells them. "Whoever the person making the allegation is, they get off scot-free. The folks doing the accusing just get to point their fingers and [...] nothing happens to them."
Although LGBTQ+ groups have widely referred to measures like SB 228 as a "solution in search of a problem," the law appears to create conflicts where there are none. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), which governs student athletics in the state, told The Tennessean in March that there has never been a case of trans athlete eligibility at the high school or middle school level in the state. Richmond, who has corresponded with hundreds of local Trans youth in her work with the Nashville Human Rights Commission, knows of one private school with Trans athletes but says they are "not affected by the law."
Some supporters of the measure have admitted that they aren't aware of any Transgender student athletes currently competing in Tennessee, with state Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Dist. 75) telling the Associated Press that the law would allow the state to be "proactive." While taking questions on SB 228 in early March, state Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Dist. 28) owned up to the fact that he had not spoken to any Trans people about the legislation.
"The way to demonstrate that we're not the menace, we're not the terror, we're not the problem that we're made out to be is to be constantly present, but the more that these laws come out, the greater the act of courage it is."
Colin Goodbred, a ballet dancer who grew up outside of Nashville, told them. [www.them.us/] that he repeatedly tried to get meetings with lawmakers to speak with them about the bill but was largely unsuccessful. The only one who was willing to meet with him, he says, was Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Dist. 23), and Goodbred claims that he was the "first constituent who [Johnson] had spoken to." (Johnson's office did not respond to them.'s request for comment.) While Johnson ultimately joined every other Republican state senator to vote in favor of SB 228, Goodbred credits Johnson as being "very thoughtful," saying he listened and asked questions.
"It just made me wish that more legislators would take the time to listen to the experiences of trans people instead of making laws that could have major impacts on other people's lives," he tells them.
Observers worry about the collateral damage that could be wrought from a flawed effort that has already been met with the threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The national advocacy group successfully fought for a court injunction blocking HB 500, a similar measure that passed in Idaho last year.
Richmond believes the law could jeopardize Nashville's bid to host the World Cup in 2026 - an event that could generate as much as $5 billion in potential revenue. Richmond claims a "questionnaire that was sent to all of the bidding cities" asked "very pointed questions about LGBT rights." "Of course, we're filling that out at the local level, but these state actions could cost us a host spot," she says. "That's money that's not going to come to us."
When North Carolina passed an anti-Trans bathroom bill in 2016, the potential economic fallout was estimated at more than $3.7 billion over the next 12 years, from the cancelation of concerts and conferences to companies pulling planned expansions in the state. Projections have apparently not been released on the impact of SB 228, but nearly 150 local and national businesses signed an open letter blasting Tennessee's slate of anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 2021, including Amazon, Nissan, Pfizer, and Warner Music Group.
While a note attached to SB 228 dismisses the potential fiscal impact from corporate backlash as "not significant," the bill is far from the only discriminatory proposal being considered this year. According to the advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, Tennessee has introduced eight pieces of legislation seeking to strip the LGBTQ+ community of rights and resources, tying West Virginia for the fourth most of any state in the country. Others include bills seeking to ban queer-inclusive textbooks, prevent Trans youth from receiving gender-affirming medical care, and force all-gender bathrooms to post signs warning that Trans people are permitted to use the facilities.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community say they are more concerned, though, about the human cost than the financial one. Goodbred, who left Tennessee to attend college in New Hampshire, doubts that he would move back after graduation, saying that Transgender people "can't feel truly welcomed when we're not able to express ourselves." He worries for other Trans young people who don't have the choice to leave, noting the "staggeringly high rates of depression, anxiety, isolation, homelessness, and suicide" among youth.
Had he been living in the state when this law passed, Goodbred says that he would have "felt incredibly isolated." "Because for me, a sport isn't just the physical activity - it's also the community you build up around that," he says. "I would lose my teachers and my friends and activities that I love to do that keep me healthy and active. That would have been pretty devastating, at a time when my mental health was already very vulnerable, to be cut off from that support system."
LGBTQ+ Tennesseeans vowed to keep pushing to make sure that more laws like SB 228 aren't passed, but that toil is a heavy burden after they have been forced to fight for their survival year after year. In the past five years, Tennessee has been among the national leaders in enacting discriminatory laws, including legislation allowing therapists to refuse queer and Trans patients and faith-based agencies to turn away same-sex couples seeking to adopt or foster a child. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, former governor Bill Haslam signed a bill preserving the "natural and ordinary" meaning of words like "mother" and "father.'