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Senate effectively kills restrictive transgender sports bill

Bipartisan group of senators votes to table controversial bill

The Alaska Senate voted to table a bill seeking to prevent transgender athletes from competing as the gender they identify with, effectively killing the bill for this session.

With the end of the legislative session on Wednesday, lawmakers are trying to pass as many bills as possible, and both the Senate and the House of Representatives have had dozens of bills on their calendars over the past few days. The bill was unlikely to pass the full Legislature, and when it was introduced for debate, Senate Democrats had over a dozen amendments ready to try to alter the bill.

Wielechowski’s first amendment to allow local school boards to set the policy split the Senate in an even 10-10 vote, not enough for a motion to pass.

The bill was tabled last week after only five of what Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said were dozens of amendments prepared. But on the Senate floor Monday evening, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, called a vote bringing the bill back under consideration.

Before debate could proceed Tuesday morning, motions were made to move the bill to the bottom of the calendar, then ultimately to table the bill. Both motions — first to roll the bill to the bottom, then to table the bill — came from Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage. Both motions were met with lengthy at-eases, where lawmakers are able to speak off the record.

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Hughes objected to tabling the bill, saying the move would effectively kill the bill. The motion passed 11-8, with Sens. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage; Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks; Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage; Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks; Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau; Josh Revak, R-Anchorage; Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; von Imhof and Wielechowski voting to table the bill.

The bill, which would have required elementary and high school sports to require athletes to play on the team with their gender assigned at birth — rather than the gender they identify as — went through a lengthy and contentious committee process, with hours of public testimony given for and against the bill. An amendment added late in the process exempted the University of Alaska from the bill, university spokesperson Robbie Graham previously told the Empire.

In sponsoring the bill, Hughes said she was trying to protect women’s sports from becoming dominated by transgender athletes that may have a genetic advantage. But critics said the law was legally dubious, sought to address a nonexistent problem, and noted implementation would likely run afoul of privacy laws.

In an interview with the Empire on May 12, author, educator and organizer Aidan Key said he’d worked with these same issues in Washington state 15 years ago. Key — a transgender man born and raised in Juneau but who spent more than 30 years in Washington — worked with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to create a gender-diverse inclusivity toolkit that received an endorsement from each of Seattle’s professional sports teams.

Key began working with youth sports officials on transgender issues over a decade ago, he said, and in that time there have been few challenges to transgender athletes competing.

“After 15 years, there’s only been one case, a young transgender woman running on the track team,” Key, who moved back to Juneau during the pandemic, said. “My question to all the Legislature is, why are you attempting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist?”

The WIAA developed gender identity guidelines for the 2007-2008 school year, according to their website, and updated the guidelines in 2019.

Following the update, the WIAA recorded a public service announcement on gender inclusivity in sports with representatives from six professional sports teams in Seattle — the Sounders soccer team, the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, the Seahawks football team, Mariners baseball team, Kraken hockey team and OL Reign soccer team — all endorsing the toolkit.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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