Transgender Athletes-Montana

FILE - In this March 15, 2021, file photo demonstrators gather on the steps of the Montana State Capitol protesting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Helena, Mont. The Montana Senate advanced Tuesday, March 30, 2021, a bill that would ban transgender athletes from participating in school and college sports according to the gender with which they identify, but amended it to be voided if the federal government withholds federal funding from the state due to the measure. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

Louisiana legislators are convening a historic meeting at noon Tuesday motivated primarily by the governor’s veto of a bill that forbids transgender youth from participating in organized women’s sports.

Though the decision by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is the target of the extraordinary veto override session, the transgender ban is an issue that also pits evangelical Protestants and conservative businessmen — two important Republican constituencies — against each other.

True, transgender discrimination isn’t the only one of Edwards’ 28 vetoes to attract attention. Republican lawmakers have voiced anger over Edwards’ refusal to allow adults to carry concealed weapons without permits or training. Others are mad at rejecting partisan poll watchers at all 3,934 precincts and booting a bill that limited the use of drop boxes for mail ballots during elections.

But the only issue specifically mentioned by both House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans, is Senate Bill 156, which passed both chambers with more votes than are needed to turn the “Fairness in Women's Sports Act” into law over Edwards’ objections that “discrimination is not a Louisiana value.”

Those wanting to overturn some of the governor’s other vetoes have more narrow constituencies, Louisiana Family Forum President Gene Mills told The Advocate and The Times-Picayune on Friday.

“Gun support has much tighter demographics,” Mills said.

Opposition to allowing athletes born as males to compete with women is fairly wide. “There’s a base level that is undeniable,” said the Rev. Mills, who organized a petition drive that attracted more than 500 ministers saying transgender people should be treated with respect but shouldn’t be allowed to compete in girls’ sports because male bodies are generally stronger than females.

“The grassroots started calling legislators’ district offices, and it just was a groundswell of support to override it,” Cortez said of the transgender rights veto. “Each individual district, whether it was a House district or a Senate district, started getting inundated with phone calls and emails and letters. I think that’s part of the process. You have to listen to your constituents.”

A recent Pew Research Center analysis showed that since the transgender bathroom debates during the President Barack Obama years, the American public has been sharply divided along religious and partisan lines over the possibility of someone being a different gender than their sex at birth: 84% of White evangelical Protestants, 59% of Black Protestants and 55% White mainline Protestants feel that way. Catholics are divided on the question but still come in 51% saying gender is decided at birth and 46% saying it’s possible for someone to recognize that their gender differs from what was assigned at birth.

The results of another poll in February prompted National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, of Florida, to issue a “2022 Winning Message Alert.” Sixty-seven percent of the 1,200 voters surveyed nationwide opposed transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. Within that broader group of opponents, 59% of suburban women, 69% of African Americans and 74% of Hispanic voters — all groups of voters who didn’t support Republican causes during the President Donald Trump years.

“The most highly publicized, of course, was the legislation that says that biological men could not compete in women’s sports,” said Woody Jenkins, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party, in ticking off the most important vetoes that conservatives want to see upended. “It probably is not, maybe, the most important thing in terms of how government functions but it is a statement about our moral basis in our country and just where we want to stand.”

Louisiana’s legislation was approved 29-6 in the state Senate, where 26 votes are needed to overturn the governor’s veto and 78-19 in the House, where 70 votes are needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

The names of legislators who backed SB156 are on record, making it difficult for lawmakers to flip their votes. “Any incongruence on those votes will need to be accompanied with a valid explanation,” said Mills, of the Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based group that lobbies conservative views on behalf of conservative Christian congregations.

But overturning the governor’s veto won’t be a slam dunk and not just because Louisiana’s governor is clothed in immense power.

Another key Republican constituency — the business community — is against negating Edwards’ veto and turning the anti-transgender instrument into law.

With a veto override in sight, Louisiana’s business interests have stepped up their lobbying efforts, warning lawmakers that making a national spectacle out of what is essentially a nonissue could hamper the state’s ability to attract conventions and tourists.

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“Many companies say state laws such as these negatively influence their business decisions,” according to Michael Hecht, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., the influential economic development nonprofit.

“Since this does not appear to be an active issue in Louisiana, enacting such legislation right now — as tourism and businesses are striving to recover from COVID — would likely have more of a negative impact than a positive one,” Hecht wrote in an email responding to questions.

“Many national conventions and conferences have made it clear that they may not select Louisiana as a destination if this bill were to be signed,” Edwards wrote in his veto message. 

Fewer than 3 million people out of 328 million in the nation identify as a gender different than the one of their birth, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. That’s about same number of female athletes in American public schools and proponents can’t point to single case where a transgender youth born as a male competed in a girls' sporting event in Louisiana.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation counts 1,059 of the nation’s largest companies and law firms as having policies that protect transgender employees, including offering health care insurance cover such workers. These are some the biggest companies in the world including Amazon, Anheuser-Busch Companies, AT&T Inc., Coca-Cola Co., Delta Airlines, Exxon Mobil Corp., FedEx Corp., Harley-Davidson Inc. and Walt Disney Co.

The prospect of being listed as a “discriminatory” state has raised alarm bells with business groups like GNO Inc. They’re cautioning lawmakers that if the legislation became law, the impact on the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic could be devastating.

“The fact is the legislature passed SB156 despite having no evidence that participation by trans athletes has caused an issue in Louisiana, and in the face of the very real possibility of economic boycotts,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement.

New Orleans has had a particularly hard time bouncing back amid the ongoing pandemic. The region lost thousands of jobs after tourism dropped off last year and has had slower recovery than most of Louisiana, according to recent analysis from LSU economist Jim Richardson.

And now, Louisiana is in the throes of a new surge in cases of COVID-19 as a result of its bottom-of-the-barrel vaccination rates. Last week, New Orleans’ officials warned that restrictions could go “back to square one” if inoculations don’t improve.

“We understand this is an issue with complicated and valid viewpoints. From an economic development perspective, however, there is a real threat of losing events such as the Final Four in 2022, as well as deterring future investment,” said Hecht.

The most tangible loss would be the NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship, scheduled to take place next year in New Orleans. The sport’s governing body issued a statement in April amid the nationwide wave of anti-transgender legislation saying that it would only host future championship events in states that are “safe, healthy and free of discrimination.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, headed by former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert, didn’t return a request for comment. Behind the scenes, however, officials warned that enshrining the legislation in law would jeopardize the state’s status as host of the championship. The NCAA told Edwards that the legislation conflicts with its anti-discrimination policy, according to emails obtained by The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.

If the NCAA moved the Final Four championship out of New Orleans, the state would miss out on more than 75,000 basketball fans, and the thousands of hotel rooms and restaurants they might fill up, Hecht estimated. He said the two-game event, scheduled for April, could generate $170 million in economic activity and 230,000 hotel night stays.

The threat of losing out on tourism dollars doesn’t faze Schexnayder, of Gonzales. “If the NCAA chooses to back out of their commitment to Louisiana because we decide biological males shouldn't play female sports, that's on them. Their decision, either way, will have zero impact on the way we vote,” Schexnayder said in a prepared statement.

Mills put it more succinctly: “We used to tell Ole Miss where to go. We can tell the NCAA the same thing.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.