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Opinion A new low in anti-trans bills: Genital exams for female athletes

A 12-year-old transgender swimmer in Utah in February 2021. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The latest trend in American politics is to encourage snitching. Last week in Ohio, this nasty-minded moment reached a new nadir: If a measure passed by Republican state legislators becomes law, anyone could force girls and young women to submit to invasive gender-verification tests if they want to stay on their high school and college sports teams.

It would be cruel enough merely to ban transgender students from girls’ and women’s athletics. But this bill opens the door to something worse: using weaponized genital exams to expose an imagined invasion of transgender girls.

In a sane world, even the most meddlesome and ardent opponents of trans female athletes would pause at the thought. But sane is apparently a lot to ask these days.

Ohio’s measure requires that “if a participant’s sex is disputed,” the athlete in question must provide a doctor’s note confirming their physical sex on the basis of “the participant’s internal and external reproductive anatomy,” “the participant’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone” or “an analysis of the participant’s genetic makeup.”

The proposal also gives anyone — whether a parent eager to eliminate their child’s competition or a national activist looking to make local trouble — the standing to challenge an athlete’s gender, and provides no disincentives for making false reports.

Beyond the ways in which the measure would harm young trans athletes, there is no check on the vicious ways in which hypercompetitive parents might use this bill to hurt not just trans girls but any young women. And we know those ruthless parents are out there.

Parents have sued after their children were cut from varsity teams. They’ve subjected opposing teams to racial abuse in an effort to rattle them. Wanda Holloway notoriously hired a hit man to knock off her daughter’s rival for a slot on the school cheerleading squad, as well as the girl’s mother.

Yes, those cases might sound extreme. But it appears inevitable that some aggrieved adult could use the Ohio law to even more devious ends than those for which it is intended.

And let’s be clear about what the use — not just abuse — of the Ohio legislation would mean.

In plain language: Verifying someone’s gender through an examination of “the participant’s internal and external reproductive anatomy” means a doctor must look at a young athlete’s genitals. And a standard pelvic exam involves a physician putting their fingers inside a patient’s vagina while pushing on the pelvis with their other hand. Asking a student to choose between an unnecessary medical exam and a desire to keep playing sports is vicious; morally, if not legally, it’s a kind of medical rape.

The potential to damage children doesn’t end there. The legislation also doesn’t define what “normal” genitals, testosterone or genetic makeup are. That means, as one parent pointed out on Twitter, that children could be judged based on the size and shape of their genitals. And the experience of Caster Semenya, a South African Olympian, demonstrates that natural variations in genetics or testosterone levels could be used to shift children and young adults from one sex category to another — or leave them in a kind of undetermined zone.

Republicans in Ohio’s statehouse intended to draw more rigid gender boundaries — in a place where only five transgender athletes are competing in school sports this year, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Instead, they’ve set the stage for widespread gender confusion and sexualized intervention into children’s sense of themselves.

Disastrous as this bill is, it feels like a logical conclusion to a wave of legislation encouraging ordinary citizens to police their neighbors.

In Texas, this has meant not just giving people the right to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion beyond six weeks but also providing financial bounties for successful lawsuits as an incentive. It means Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) asking “members of the general public” to report parents who provide gender-affirming medical care to their transgender children, so the state can investigate those parents for child abuse.

In Florida, that means Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signing legislation that allows parents to sue schools if they suspect their children are being taught critical race theory, a specific academic discipline that has been transformed into a catchall boogeyman. And in California, it means an effort to give citizens the ability to sue gun manufacturers and distributors.

The fad for private rights of action started as a fiendishly clever attempt to work around Roe v. Wade. It has morphed into a broader movement and mind-set encouraging people to tattle on one another to the courts or the state — with grave consequences.

Ohio’s senators and Gov. Mike DeWine (R) still have a chance to pull children and young adults back from this abyss. Let’s hope they take it.