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Indiana’s GOP governor vetoes bill banning transgender girls from female sports in schools, citing ‘unanswered questions’

Civil rights and LGBTQ rights organizations praised Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) for his decision. In a statement, Cathryn Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign said the governor “did the right thing.” (Darron Cummings/AP)
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Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, struck down a bill on Monday that would have banned transgender girls from competing in female sports at school — making him an outlier in a party that has passed similar laws in nearly a dozen states.

In a letter addressing his decision, Holcomb wrote that the bill “leaves too many unanswered questions.” He also challenged the need for state intervention.

“It implies that the goals of consistency and fairness in competitive female sports are not currently being met,” Holcomb said. “After thorough review, I find no evidence to support either claim even if I support the overall goal.”

The governor, who was first elected in 2016, also noted that the bill would probably face legal challenges. Holcomb referenced a lawsuit filed in federal court before the measure was introduced that involved a middle school forbidding a transgender male student from playing on boys’ sports teams, among other alleged discrimination.

“Any bill brought forward should address the issues raised in these lawsuits,” Holcomb wrote.

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Holcomb’s decision comes as states face a flurry of new measures affecting transgender athletes. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 147 bills targeting issues like sports and gender-affirming health care were introduced throughout the country in 2021 — almost double that of 2020. The LGBTQ rights organization predicts the number will be even higher this year.

Earlier this month, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) became the 11th governor to sign a bill banning transgender girls from joining female sports teams at school. The other states include Texas, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana and Arkansas. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota vetoed a similar bill last April, citing reasons similar to those Holcomb noted in his letter and adding that there has “not been a single recorded incident of a transgender girl attempting to play on a North Dakota girls’ team.”

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The GOP-controlled Indiana General Assembly passed House Bill 1041 on March 1. Republican state legislators argued the bill would guarantee fair competition in girls’ sports from kindergarten through high school. But the proposed law was heavily criticized by state Democrats and activists. The American Civil Liberties Union said it was “hateful, harmful and appears to violate federal law and the constitution.” And during heated testimony to the state’s Senate Education and Career Development Committee last month, the ACLU indicated it would sue if the bill passed.

In his letter explaining his decision to veto the legislation, Holcomb wrote that the bill did not provide clear guidelines and procedures on how schools would ensure that sports are fair.

“Meaning, student-athletes could be treated differently according to which school they attend and compete for,” the governor wrote. “Frustration of students, parents and administrators will likely follow. This of course only increases the likelihood of litigation against our schools with the courts having to adjudicate the uncertainties.”

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With a Republican majority in the state House and Senate, Indiana legislators could still override the veto.

Civil rights and LGBTQ rights organizations praised Holcomb for his decision. In a statement, Cathryn Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign said the governor “did the right thing.”

“HB 1041 would help no one — the bill’s proponents could not summon even a single example where someone was impacted as a result of transgender students participating in school sports, which they’ve done for decades across the country,” Oakley said. “… This veto is a strong statement of Indiana’s values and the legislature must allow it to stand.”

Katie Blair, the advocacy and public policy director for the ACLU of Indiana, said in a statement that the governor’s move would not have been possible without robust opposition to the bill.

“This victory belongs to the trans youth of Indiana, who deserve to live as their authentic selves and to play the sports they love, free from discrimination,” Blair said. “Discrimination has no place in our state.”