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‘Denying humanity’: Advocates discuss law that bans trans athletes from female sports teams

In mid-March, Mississippi lawmakers passed a law banning transgender girls and women at public schools and colleges from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. It was necessary, Gov. Tate Reeves said the day he signed the bill, because Democratic President Joe Biden, by issuing an executive order banning gender-identity-based discrimination in school sports, was “encouraging transgenderism amongst children.”

The bill’s author, Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, said several high school softball coaches told her they were concerned about trans female students participating on teams with cisgender girls.

“They told me that it is imminent, that it’s going to happen in Mississippi,” Hill told the Picayune Item.

Yet when asked by reporters, neither Hill nor Reeves could name a single instance of a trans student in Mississippi outcompeting — or even playing on the same team as — their cis female classmates.

“This law is a solution in search of a problem,” the president of Human Rights Campaign said in a statement. The ACLU of Mississippi is now working to find trans athletes who could serve as plaintiffs in a legal challenge against the law; otherwise, it will take effect July 1.

Mississippi Today recently spoke with five advocates for trans rights in Mississippi about gender identity and religion in the Deep South, the political origins of Senate Bill 2536, and their vision for a more trans-inclusive state. What follows is a conversation, which has been edited and condensed for length, between Dr. Jemma Cook, a trans woman who co-chairs the Jackson MS Democratic Socialists of America; Calandra Davis, a queer Black woman who organizes with Black Youth Project 100; Elizabeth Henry, a cis woman and college chaplain working with trans students in Jackson; Misty Kendrick, a cis parent of a teenage trans girl; and Jensen Luke Matar, a trans man and the ACLU of Mississippi’s Equality Advocacy Coordinator.

Editor’s note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255. Local resources include the Mississippi Department of Mental Health DMH Helpline at 1–877–210–8513 and the NAMI Mississippi Crisis Lines at 1–877–210–851.

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Mississippi Today: What is daily life like for trans students in Mississippi right now? How is that experience different for trans students in elementary school, high school, college?

Misty Kendrick: I’ve lived in Mississippi my whole life. I have two daughters; my oldest, (Zoe), is a trans female. She’s graduating high school and going to college. She came out to me her 10th grade year (two years ago). I was very open, very accepting, but she was scared to come out to me. She came out at school in little bits at a time. Came out to the theater group, came out to her friends. It took a little time for her to feel the confidence to come out to everyone, but she did, and she started HRT (hormone replacement therapy) probably about eight months after she came out to me. She was out for at least a year, and even then a few people would still use her deadname, even teachers. That was a struggle. We switched to home school. A lot of that was because of COVID, but also she just felt more comfortable being at home and not having to be out there around everyone.

She’s very excited to go to college. At first I tried to talk her into going to community college and staying close to me, but that’s not what she wants to do, so I’m gonna support her. She’s nervous about the dorms because she can’t get her gender-marker changed yet. The first year you have to live in the dorms, but I can’t see putting my daughter in the male dorms, so that’s another problem we’re facing right now.

One thing that has really been a thing for me: So many parents are not supportive of their kids. Zoe has run into deep depression, self-harm thoughts, even with me being super supportive. My heart goes out to the youth that don’t have that support.

Jensen Luke Matar: Life’s not easy for young trans people at all. Finding ways to have basic needs met is a struggle. For example, I’ve been working with two young trans females, both teenagers, over the past few weeks. Both of them have been homeless. Their parents kicked them out when they came out as trans. For one, we were able to find a temporary housing program where you learn life skills, get on your feet and get a job. She’s almost 18. Hopefully she can be independent once this program comes to completion. The other, I’ve been bouncing between organizations trying to fund a hotel and make sure that she has an allowance, basically, for food.

And, Misty, I feel for you.As bills like this pass, I’ve been getting phone calls from parents about their children being bullied just because of the bill. So many parents with young trans kids are pulling (them) out of school because it’s that harmful. A parent of a young female that I’ve been in contact with just did the same last week. She pulled her daughter out of school because the bullying was just going too far.

Dr. Jemma Cook: As an addendum to that, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, about 77% of kids that were out as trans in K-12 education experienced some kind of mistreatment ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault. Seventeen percent of them left school. They also noted that if their classmates knew they were trans, 56% were supportive or very supportive, while only 5% were not supportive or very unsupportive. So this bill is designed to promote the bullies, more or less. Most kids are supportive or don’t care because they’ve got their own lives to deal with.

Likewise, an estimated 2% of high schoolers are transgender. It’s a very small population that we’re talking about. And of those kids, jeez, 39% (first) attempted suicide while they were aged 14 to 17. 34% (first) attempted when they were 13 or younger.

Elizabeth Henry: Working as a chaplain with our transgender students (at Millsaps College) … what we’re worried about most of the time are things like making sure they have stable housing because their parents found out in the middle of their college career and (stopped) paying for school. The amount of time that we spend trying to get them access to healthcare — not just things like access to hormones, but finding any kind of medical professional that’s going to use appropriate names and pronouns.

There’s also the simple things, like the number of times kids get deadnamed on the first day of class because the roster automatically prints (their) legal name. It sets the tone in such a negative way — and also tells all of your classmates your deadname. Those bullies now have that information to use against you.

Misty: It’s not even just with sports. One of the things that we encountered in Pearl Public Schools is Zoe wanted to try out for color guard, but they denied her because they said she’s not a girl.

Mississippi Today: How did SB 2536 passing affect you? What was your reaction to it? Your community’s reaction to it?

Calandra Davis: For the purposes of this question, when I think of my community, I think of the organizing community and then the larger Black community. I don’t identify as trans, but I identify as queer. The passing of this bill has ruined some relationships for me.

Basically what I am seeing is that folks are denying the humanity of trans people and queer people. I was in a Facebook messenger thread with a lot of local organizers and somehow the conversation quickly went into, like, “Heterosexuals have rights, too.” And I’m just like, wait, what? How did we get to this point?

There are some voices that’s missing from the conversation. There’s Black queer folk who are not being included in these conversations. We never get a chance to have the lead on the conversations. Our youth aren’t even ever really included in how they’re impacted by this. And so you have grown folks who have been, quote-unquote, doing this work and organizing for years, for decades, having a conversation about children. That just doesn’t make sense to me. It shows me that at the end of the day, if we keep framing these conversations as just hate — it’s beyond that. If we keep framing the conversation as just as simple as a difference of opinions, that’s dangerous because those opinions are biases that are playing into a larger system.

At the foundation of it all is the fact that the world we live in puts us at war with each other. It almost seems like we have to choose if we could get, like, the crumbs, if we could get a few crumbs of freedom. But we don’t have to choose. We could have it all, and we could do that by coming together. Personally, I have stepped away from a lot of things over the past couple of weeks. It’s just like, how do you come together with people who are actively denying your humanity?

Jensen: Young trans people are having to make a case for being treated as human, basically. That’s what’s going on. Most trans people in Mississippi, if not all of them, are having to make a case, and in some instances plead, to be treated as humans. (This bill) is not really about young trans female athletes at all. That’s not what it’s about. It’s to send a message. And I think the overarching message is trans people are not who they say they are. Their identities are not valid. I’m so deeply offended and hurt by this, and everybody else should be, because there is not one thing that is more valuable to an individual person than their identity. Wounds can’t be cut deeper than that.

Jemma: A common slur for trans women is “trap,” suggesting that we are inherently being fraudulent just by living as who we say we are.

This is called the “Mississippi Fairness Act,” but it’s a blanket ban on people. There’s no room for discussion about what constitutes fairness. The example (that) keeps getting brought up (of) “someone who’s not a starter on the (men’s) basketball team transitions to become a starter on the women’s team.” But what if a trans girl wants to compete on the gymnastics team, where maybe being bigger is a disadvantage? What happens if a (cis) girl happens to be 6-foot tall? Are we going to deny her a place on the basketball team because she’s tall?

Jensen: Or are we gonna investigate her and make her go through testing? This is dangerous for cisgender women as well.

Elizabeth: That’s absolutely going to be used against women of color and girls of color more. You think about how often Serena Williams has been attacked and called a man because she excels at her sport.

Mississippi Today: Angela Hill, the primary author of the bill, has said repeatedly that trans women have an unfair athletic advantage, but some studies have shown that’s not true, particularly when talking about adolescents, teenagers going through puberty.

Jemma: A lot of variables go into excellence in sports. You need to be talking about specific measures of athletic performance. Shooting free throws is very different from powerlifting, from doing a somersault.

Jensen: You mention Angela Burks Hill. She’s responsible for a lot of this. This is not her first rodeo. This session’s not the first session she’s introduced anti-trans legislation. Then you have the “Transgender 21 Act.” That was Angela Burks Hill as well. That was to prevent trans people from under the age of 21 from accessing health care.

Jemma: It would’ve criminalized anyone who provided health care (to trans youth) and turned everyone into a mandated reporter.

Meanwhile, we have COVID. We have the water crisis, but we can’t get funding to repair our infrastructure. They’re not funding the schools, so they’re not funding the women’s sports that they’re advocating to protect. These people are not advocates for women’s sports, women’s rights, women’s health care. They just happen to be seizing on this because it is politically palatable. It gins up their base.

Mississippi Today: What has changed for the trans community in recent years?

Jensen: There’s been some good movement. With the exception of last year, we’ve passed one nondiscrimination ordinance in one city each year starting (in 2016). We’ve been fighting hard to move the Mississippi Civil Rights Act, which is statewide legislation that’s been introduced for, jeez, five years now and hasn’t budged over at the Legislature. If it passed, it would ensure that all people are protected from discrimination in the state of Mississippi. Sounds like common sense? We should have something like that, right? Most states do. But we don’t.

Jemma: In 2020, the Bostock decision was made by the Supreme Court, which mandated that under Title VII, sex discrimination is inclusive of discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity. So you can’t fire someone for being — well, you can fire them, but then they can sue you for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

So these anti-trans bills, which we have seen amping up over (the) years, are now potentially actionable in court. For instance, this bill explicitly discriminates against individuals of the “biological male sex” or trans women. It’s explicit. But the Supreme Court has a 6–3 conservative majority. They may rule (it is) actually constitutional.

Mississippi Today: What does the focus on trans and cis women in this bill tell us about it? What is important about that group being singled out?

Elizabeth: In addition to trans people being used as a prop, cis women and girls — and particularly cis white women and girls — are being used as a talking point.

Jemma: A lot of these laws echo the Jim Crow laws and actions (that) were done to protect white women. The bathroom bills … were promulgated on protecting girls from trans women, portraying trans women as predators. These bills are promulgated on protecting women’s sports from trans women they’re (portraying as) big, hulking men with a wig on.

Elizabeth: The reality is trans girls and women are far more likely to be the victims of sexual assault and harassment than to be perpetrators of it. And if you are worried about cis gender girls and women and their safety from potential predators, straight men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of that as well.

(The notion that it’s) so unfair for transgender girls and their supposed “biological male bodies” to compete against cisgender girls, but we’re seeing newspaper articles celebrating, for example, the young girl in Ocean Springs who played on the football team and kicked the winning field goal and was named homecoming queen. We’re celebrating young girls getting into male athletics in their own gender identities because, of course, a woman can’t possibly have any kind of advantage.

Mississippi Today: How did you get involved in advocating for trans rights in Mississippi?

Misty: Well, honestly, it’s my baby. My baby really got me involved. It’s disheartening for me that there’s so much judgment, especially in the South. A lot of people base their judgment on religion. I’m a Christian. I grew up in a Christian household. But Zoe doesn’t believe in God, and I think that is because she doesn’t understand why God would make her trans for people to be so judgmental — in the name of God, be so judgmental. So that turned her completely away. A lot of people don’t understand they’re pushing these youths away (from Christianity).

Elizabeth: As a pastor, it’s important for all Mississippians and all Southerners, regardless of their particular faith, (to understand that) perspective because you can’t have a political conversation in Mississippi without having a spiritual conversation. It’s so in the water.

(I was) born and raised here. (I) grew up in the church with all the messaging you would expect being a white cis het Christian kid in Jackson, Mississippi. I grew up with “homosexuality is a sin.” I don’t know if “transgender” was even a word I knew. But when I went off to college, a bunch of my childhood friends and high school friends (came) out as gay or bi or lesbian or queer. A lot of my assumptions (were) challenged. These are my favorite people in the world (who) I love and adore, and they’re still the same people.

We’ve talked about how small the trans population is in Mississippi and in the country. A lot of people don’t know or don’t realize they know a trans person. That’s another part of the conversation: A lot of people do know trans people; they just don’t realize it because people don’t feel safe coming out, for good reason.

Jemma: I can trace my activism back to becoming more active in the 2016 Bernie campaign. As I was figuring myself out, I started having a lot of issues, a lot of suffering. It culminated in me coming out. When I started transitioning, I was running into issues (with) health care. (I was) having a hard time dealing with the identity documents (and) getting my name changed on things.

When my health care wasn’t covered, I was just like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense. I’m in Mississippi. Why should I expect better of them?” And I realized as that was happening, that’s the point of all this. They don’t want you to try. They want you to be kicked and accept it. So I started getting more active. The Bernie campaign picked up and that got me engaged in political activism. Then I got involved in the DSA. I started looking at forming a chapter. Eventually, I brought up my health care issues to my employer, who are supportive of me dealing with these issues, but because they’re a state entity and their health care system is provided by the state, they can’t do anything to be inclusive.

It’s been weird. I advocate around trans issues. I get particularly animated because I am trans… but they’re human rights, too.

Jensen: To link to what Jemma mentioned about her advocacy because it impacts her: Whether trans people want to be advocates or not, they’re gonna be in some capacity. It’s kind of imposed on us in that way.

I got into the work because of my own personal experiences. I knew I was confused about my gender my entire life. Come to find out, I wasn’t really confused. I knew who I was. I thought I was a boy. When I was younger, I was told that’s wrong. I can’t be that. I tried to shift it around. I tried to be the best female I could be. I overcompensated the way a lot of trans people do, trying to really prove to themselves that they can be OK as the gender that’s in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth.

But oftentimes what happens? It doesn’t work. I was so depressed. I was drinking every single day. I had a few unsuccessful suicide attempts, and I was just really a sad person. I mean, I was miserable.

When I moved here, I had already come out as trans to certain people in my life, but it was kind of hush, I didn’t do anything to physically transition. I didn’t really do much to socially transition, either. So when I came to Mississippi, I was at that point where I was just done. I was sick of it. If I was gonna make it, if I was gonna survive, if I was gonna be successful, if I was gonna be, then I was gonna start transitioning. I was gonna come out and be honest with myself, because I had felt like a liar for long enough.

(Lying) eats away at you. It becomes too much. So when I came to Mississippi, it was like, OK. New state, clean slate, nobody knows me. Take advantage. This is when you’re going to do it.

I started my physical transition about six years ago now. I ran into some challenges. I was managing a retail store. I had over 100 employees. I had teenagers reporting to me, and they were supposed to now address me as “he/him” and by “Jensen.” But I was confusing (to) them. I looked basically like a female to them. That’s what they saw.

So I educated that company through the human resource department for several months. I did that until the HR manager felt comfortable enough coming to my store to speak on (my) behalf. I accidentally influenced policy for the company, in a good way. They put discrimination protections in place to protect people on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation and decided to go to the extent of creating a pathway to transition in the workplace for anybody who identifies as trans or comes out as trans.

That was my first experience doing any type of advocacy work. I just so happened to link up with the ACLU at that point. They were impressed by my story. They wanted to get to know me. I volunteered for a few years, and I started getting involved with other organizations as a result. A few years into my volunteer work with the ACLU, they offered me a job as an actual advocacy coordinator.

It’s going to be a long road ahead for Mississippi. Some of the greatest advocates I know are leaving. Everybody’s leaving. Everybody says, “I’m done, I can’t with Mississippi.” And guess what? I don’t even blame them. And for me, I’ll be honest, the reason why I stay in the state is because of the job that I have. Because somebody’s got to it.

Mississippi Today: What do you envision for the future? And relatedly, what would a trans-inclusive Mississippi or trans-inclusive schools or sports teams look like?

Jensen: I have an answer for you. A trans-inclusive state would look like a state that just treats all people equally. Where all kids are treated the same. That’s it, really.

Jemma: A trans-inclusive Mississippi would look a lot like Mississippi does day to day. There’d still be barbecue. There’d still be Blues music. People would still go to church. None of that would change. But when I say, “Hi, my name is Jemma,” people believe me. They don’t insist on calling me sir to my face.

Trans women are women, so treat us like women. Trans men are men, treat them like men. Treat non-binary people like people. People would still go to church, people would still eat barbecue, people would still listen to Blues music and all that other stuff. That’s not gonna change. A trans-inclusive Mississippi looks a lot like Mississippi. It’s just a little easier to live our lives day to day.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

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