Anti-trans sports ban fails in Ohio legislature

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(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — For Ember Zelch, an 18-year-old softball player and senior in high school, the anti-trans sports bill that failed to get enough support in the Ohio legislature hits too close to home.

The bill would have banned transgender athletes like Ember from sports that correspond with their gender identity.

“I was the only trans high school female athlete that had been approved to play at that time [when the bill was introduced], so it just felt very much like a personal attack,” Zelch told ABC News.

The bill, which also included an overhaul of the State Board of Education’s powers, failed Thursday in the Ohio legislature. The Senate amended and passed the bill but House representatives voted against it.

“I’m incredibly relieved that Ohio’s transgender athlete ban did not pass,” Ember said. “I’m just happy other trans kids will have access to an experience that has been so affirming for me if that’s what they choose. To all the transgender and nonbinary kids out there, keep being the amazing people I know you are.”

Under the current rules, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has transgender athletes undergo a year of hormone treatment or demonstrate they have no other physical advantages in order to compete.

HB 151 would have required students to play on the sports teams that correlate to the gender listed on their birth certificate. A previous version of the bill would have required examinations of “internal and external reproductive anatomy” for anyone whose gender was questioned.

Gov. Mike DeWine had previously expressed opposition against anti-trans sports bans, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. It was unlikely to pass on DeWine’s watch. Similar bills have been vetoed by Republican governors in Utah and Indiana.

Lawmakers who supported the bill say it protects against any potential advantages a trans athlete may have.

Republican state Rep. Jena Powell has claimed that “female athletes are currently losing championships, scholarship opportunities, medals, education and training opportunities and more to discriminatory policies that allow biological males to compete in girls sports,” according to ABC affiliate News 5 Cleveland.

Others say the bill unnecessarily shuts out trans people from participating in sports.

“They … are prevent[ing] exactly what they claim to be trying to prevent, which is a boy deciding tomorrow that they think that they’ll try playing on the girls team – that’s not possible under the current policy,” Maria Bruno, public policy director of Equality Ohio, told ABC News.

Ember said she didn’t get to join the girl’s softball team until the spring of her sophomore year due to the current hormone policy. When she found out she was eligible to play, it was an emotional experience for her entire family.

“It was one of the most amazing days of her life when she finally received that approval,” Minna Zelch, Ember’s mother, told ABC News.

Minna said she knocked on Zelch’s door in tears and showed her the email.

“We both burst into tears, sobbing and holding one another,” she said.

Sports have always been a safe space for Ember.

“It’s not about winning, it’s not about scholarships. It’s about being able to have that community and sense of belonging and being able to have a place to go after school and not think about homework, not think about life for a little while,” Zelch said.

Several prominent athletes, including Olympic gold medalist and former US soccer player Lori Lindsey and WNBA player Brianna Turner, have expressed their support in allowing trans women to play alongside cisgender women.

“What does it say about you, about Ohio, that you would rather openly target and harass a vulnerable group of young people instead of actually listening to women athletes? This is not the Ohio I know and love,” said Lindsey in a statement.

Ohio has moved forward several anti-LGBTQ efforts. The Ohio Board of Education passed a resolution to oppose protections for LGBTQ+ students on Tuesday and Ohio Republicans backed a bill to restrict gender affirming care for trans youth.

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