RALEIGH, N.C. – On the heels of a Democratic state lawmaker's seismic shift to the Republican Party, North Carolina Republicans have filed a flurry of bills aimed at transgender youth as they look to capitalize on their newly attained supermajority.
Five Senate bills filed this week before the chamber's Thursday filing deadline would ban gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth and prohibit them from participating in middle and high school sports consistent with their gender identity.
Dozens of GOP lawmakers packed into a crowded briefing room Thursday to promote the first of those bills — the school sports restriction — which supporters say is needed to preserve opportunities for cisgender girls and protect their physical safety. At least 20 states have passed similar laws restricting transgender students’ participation in sports, based on the assertion that they have an unfair advantage, despite a widespread lack of specific cases.
LGBTQ+ rights advocates say Rep. Tricia Cotham's switch to the GOP on Wednesday — which helped Republicans reach the three-fifths majority needed in both chambers to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes — opened the floodgates to more extreme legislation that they didn't previously have the numbers to pass. State Republicans last held veto-proof margins in 2018.
Republican lawmakers across the U.S. have pursued several hundred proposals this year to push back on the rights on transgender residents, including sports bans, restroom restrictions, medical treatment prohibitions and requirements that schools alert parents when a child questions or changes their gender identity.
Before Cotham's announcement Wednesday, North Carolina Republicans had avoided some of the most stringent transgender restrictions passed in other Southern states, while the threat of Cooper's veto still loomed. That veto power, now diminished, was promoted by Democrats in last year's elections as the final barricade protecting North Carolinians from losing access to abortion and gender-affirming care.
Cotham said her shift in party affiliation doesn't indicate how she'll vote on every issue, meaning Republicans may still need to pull in a Democrat to override certain vetoes.
She ran last year on a platform of supporting LGBTQ+ protections and opposed past legislation restricting transgender access to public restrooms and preventing cities from enacting new anti-discrimination ordinances.
Her 2022 campaign website, which had been taken down as of Thursday morning, stated her commitment to “stand strong against discriminatory legislation” and “work to pass more protections” for LGBTQ+ North Carolinians.
Asked Wednesday what her Charlotte-area constituents should think about her party switch, given that they expected her to uphold Democratic positions on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, Cotham told reporters she would “stand strong on my conviction” but wouldn't be “pigeonholed” into any particular issue.
“We should all be able to evolve, and we should not be shamed for learning new perspectives at all,” Cotham said.
She said she had made clear to GOP leaders that there were “some things I’m not changing on,” but she declined to share specifics. Cotham's office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday on legislation relating to transgender youth.
“All of her stances are in question,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality North Carolina. “The entire community that mobilized and worked to get her elected is deeply disappointed.”
The proposed restriction would designate school sports teams by biological sex, determined by “reproductive biology and genetics at birth." Sponsors did not have an explanation Thursday for how the sex designation would be enforced. House leadership tabled a similar bill in 2021.
“This bill is not against anybody, but it is for all women," said Sen. Vickie Sawyer, an Iredell County Republican and primary sponsor.
Extensive research is virtually nonexistent when it comes to determining whether adolescent trans girls have a clear athletic advantage over cisgender girls.
Only about 15 transgender athletes are playing high school sports in the state this year, Sawyer said.
She acknowledged that the bill in its current form would also ban cisgender girls from participating in certain contact sports like football or wrestling.
Former University of North Carolina women’s basketball head coach Sylvia Hatchell said separate sex categories have allowed the greatest female athletes in history to shine. “I am not against transgender, but there is a place — in a completely separate category,” Hatchell said.
Macon County Republican Sen. Kevin Corbin, another primary sponsor of the legislation, said Thursday that he is confident in the bill’s prospects and thinks it could receive bipartisan support.
Johnson, the LGBTQ+ advocate, said the legislation would be further isolating for transgender youth.
“This is another one of those bills that doesn’t address the real issues and further marginalizes a population that already has higher suicidal ideation rates, higher familial rejection, that already has so many barriers just to survive and thrive inside of schools,” Johnson said. “It feels like bullying from the legislature.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday allowed a 12-year-old trans girl in West Virginia to continue competing on her middle school’s girls track and cross-country team — where she often finishes near the back of the pack — while a lawsuit over a state ban continues.
Other North Carolina bills filed this week would prohibit prescribing puberty blockers to minors or performing certain surgeries on minors that would remove healthy body parts or tissue. One would explicitly prohibit doctors from performing gender-transition procedures on individuals under 18, with exceptions.
At least 13 states have now enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming treatments for minors. Federal judges have blocked the enforcement of laws in Alabama and Arkansas, and nearly two dozen other states are considering bills this year to restrict or ban care.
Another bill, which passed the North Carolina Senate in February and is now in the House, would prohibit instruction about gender identity and sexuality in K-4 classrooms and require schools to inform parents before the child can use a different name or pronouns.
Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.