Let’s make one thing clear: competition and inclusion do not have to be mutually exclusive. But for Rep. Koppelman, apparently they are. His bill, which passed the North Dakota House of Representatives by a vote of 65 to 26, purports to help female athletes in North Dakota by ensuring “fair competition,” but what it really does is exclude students who identify as non-binary or transgender from competing in the athletics programs at their schools. This bill is part of a concerted, centralized effort by Republicans in legislatures across the United States to discriminate against transgender young people, and Koppelman and his supporters are choosing to bring this bigotry to North Dakota.

While Rep. Koppelman insists that this was solely to help girls in sports compete fairly, it is couched in a discriminatory Title IX argument that insists on classifying young people by their assigned sex at birth – a signifier that shouldn’t be forced on transgender people. Transgender athletes go to try-outs and are selected from the same pool of excited applicants like every student, and this bill singles out these athletes and forces them to comply with Koppelman’s bigoted standards.

Over 20 legislatures across the country are debating similar bills or have debated similar bills in the recent past, including our neighbor South Dakota, where it thankfully failed to pass. Koppelman’s bill is even more extreme than South Dakota’s because it includes college athletes in addition to public elementary and secondary school students. This is going to cause enormous issues that Koppelman must not have thought about or has chosen to ignore. For starters, it would isolate North Dakota collegiate sports from national governing bodies like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA has long allowed for transgender athletes to compete with athletes of their identifying gender. If enacted, this new legislation would potentially result in North Dakota public universities having to forfeit competitions or stop hosting collegiate events.

Amid continued deaths from COVID-19, a slow vaccine rollout, and our teachers struggling to meet the needs of students, North Dakota Republicans are choosing to debate opportunities to discriminate against young North Dakotans – not passing legislation to help our state recover from a health and financial crisis. Athletes are having to compete under enormous pressure to not only win, but to do so during a pandemic. These are not normal times for our young people who have had to forgo organized athletics to stay safe. Now is not the time to single out any members of our community, including our transgender young people, under the bigoted guise of “increasing fairness”. Fairness for who, Koppelman? Not our transgender young people wanting to compete fairly with their peers.

Rebel Marie, a Fargo-Moorhead-based counselor and vice president of Tri-State Transgender tells the Grand Forks Herald that adopting the new legislation would have ramifications of the bill that extend beyond just sports. If enacted, this bill would deter teaching talent from coming to North Dakota schools, especially diverse teachers who may feel unsafe. Crucially, there are major mental health consequences for young transgender North Dakotans who already deal with one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2017, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) conducted a statewide survey of 10,000 middle and high school students. They found that queer youth in North Dakota attempt suicide at a rate 58 times higher than the estimated national average for suicide attempts. Nearly half of North Dakota’s LGBTQ+ youth experienced bullying because of their identity. This is what the North Dakota Legislature should be addressing – an epidemic of discrimination against our transgender young people. We have failed these children, and Koppelman continues to fail them by introducing an incredibly dangerous, discriminatory bill.

What have Koppelman and his supporters in the legislature done to address lagging test scores, lack of teachers, or issues with virtual schooling? The pandemic has impacted our state in unprecedented ways, and we need our elected officials to focus on bettering the lives of North Dakotans and their children. Supporting a bill that purposely targets transgender students is harmful and dangerous, and it shows a staggering disregard for the problems facing our state. I hope the North Dakota Senate will see this bill for what it is – an unfair attack on North Dakota’s transgender young people and those who support them.

Tessa Gould