Coaches, officials and athletes denounce proposed ban on transgender students playing girls’ school sports

A photo of a multi-story building.
The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The state Senate Education Committee on Saturday heard nearly four hours of public testimony on a bill that would prevent transgender girls from competing against cisgender girls in school sports. Those who showed up and called in to testify were overwhelmingly and vehemently opposed to the bill.

A transgender, or trans, person is a person who identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. A cisgender, or cis, person does not.

This bill was written by Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes. Sixty-six people called in or showed up in person to oppose it, while 23 called in to support it.

Opponents said the bill unfairly excludes trans girls from socializing with people of the gender they identify with. They said that can cause serious mental health outcomes for trans youth.

Jacob Bera is a cross-country running coach from Sen. Hughes’ district. He’s been a teacher and a coach for nearly 20 years.

“In the classroom and on the trails, I’ve worked hard to create an environment of inclusion. My coaching philosophy is: all abilities are welcome. Everybody races,” Bera said.

Bera says this bill will destroy that.

“I believe it will undo all those efforts. More importantly, it will further harm the mental health and well-being of those kids in schools,” Bera said.

Those who support the bill said cis girls could be prevented from winning scholarships to college. Like Alaska-born Kendall Kirby, a student at a college in Nebraska.

“If I had not had the opportunity to pursue and excel in my sport, specifically in my division as a female athlete, I would not have gained an athletic scholarship to college. Additionally, it would not have been financially feasible for me to attend college out of state,” Kirby said.

But that hasn’t happened in Alaska. As the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, Billy Strickland oversees high school sports in Alaska. He said a trans person has never taken away a scholarship from a cis female in Alaska. In fact, he said he only knows of one openly trans athlete in the high school sports history of the state.

Supporters and opponents of the bill also wrote the legislature via email to voice their opinions.

Some proponents of the bill also implied that they think it’s a sin to identify as trans.

“God created men and women differently. We will all one day be accountable to him and his court for our actions,” said Lisa Gentemann of Eagle River.

But Julie Smyth, who is Iñupiaq and from Fairbanks, said the bill goes against traditional Iñupiat culture.

A woman in a purple outer layer ties a boot while sitting on a cafeteria bench
Apayauq Reitan ties her overboots after stuffing her feet in a garbage bag to protect them from overflow and other water. March 9, 2022 (Photo by Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“In my culture we choose our gender as we get older. Our names are genderless. This bill would impact people in my culture and people from around the state, as it is common in many cultures to be transgender,” Smyth said.

Apayauq Reitan is Iñupiaq and Norwegian. She’s the first openly trans athlete competing in the Iditarod. As the senate education committee was listening to public testimony, Reitan was out on the trail, racing against the best mushers in the world, of multiple genders. She weighed in during her 24 hour rest in McGrath.

“Trans women are being excluded from an entire aspect of our society. On the chance that maybe some of them have some advantages. Which is very drastic. It seems like they’re just trying to ban us out of existence,” Reitan said.

The bill must pass the education committee before it hits the senate floor. With only Sen. Tom Begich openly stating his opposition, it seems likely to be moved out of committee.

Alaska Public Media’s Jeff Chen contributed reporting to this story.

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