Transgender athletes fight Florida’s new ban

They’ve spent months in limbo, anxiously waiting to figure out how they would be able to celebrate Pride Month 2021.

They could emerge from more than a year of isolation to celebrate their identities with the rest of their community, free to live as their authentic selves. Or they would have to prepare to fight for their right to simply exist.

The answer came on the first day of the month dedicated to LGBTQ+ pride, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that bans transgender athletes from participating in girls’ and women’s sports — a bill dubbed the "Fairness in Women’s Sports Act."

To South Florida athletes like Jazz Jennings and Oliver Echevarria, denying kids access to something they love is heartbreaking.

Jennings, star of the popular TLC reality show "I Am Jazz," was the first athlete to go through the Florida High School Athletic Association’s gender inclusion process to play as a transgender athlete after it was adopted in 2013. Echevarria, 15, is waiting for the other shoe to drop, while he and other trans athletes endure a summer of uncertainty about whether they can return to their sports teams.

Jennings socially transitioned when she was 5 years old. She was already in love with sports and was playing on a co-ed soccer team.

RELATED: Florida governor signs bill banning transgender athletes from female teams

The United States Soccer Federation banned Jennings from girls’ travel soccer when she was 8. They told her she could practice with her friends on the girls’ team but would have to play on the boys’ team.

She tried. But the boys teased her for being a girl, said her mother, Jeanette Jennings. She had anxiety attacks on the field, where she would freeze up and just stand there and had to be pulled off.

Jennings and her family patiently escalated her case to the highest level in the United States Soccer Federation, and they won.

Once Jennings got to high school and joined the girls’ varsity tennis team, they were prepared and filed all the paperwork with the FHSAA before it could become a problem. Jennings declined to say which school she attended because of concern for her family’s safety.

Jennings took hormone blockers at 11 and estrogen replacement therapy when she was 12, so she never went through male puberty, her mother said. A facilitator presented her case, and a doctor verified it.

"I was a little annoyed I had to go through this whole extra process when I just wanted to play tennis," she recently told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "At the end of the day, I was allowed to. Even that sort of protocol is so much better than completely banning kids who just want to play sports and be accepted for who they are and what they like to do."

Without that avenue that allowed her to play, she would have been devastated, she said. Tennis allowed her to thrive and gave her a sense of belonging among her teammates, she said.

"To take that experience away because of who you are and your identity — something you can’t control — is completely unfair," she said.

RELATED: Florida's transgender athletics law 'pits children against each other,' activists say

DeSantis and the bill’s sponsors argued that the law is needed to protect cisgender girls — meaning their gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth — who they say could be denied athletic opportunities if they had to compete against transgender girls.

Supporters in the Legislature, including the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, said it will ensure fairness in sports.

"We all know that men are stronger than women," Stargel said. "Men are stronger. They have bigger lung capacity, stronger muscles."

Athletes caught in the crossfire say it’s anything but fair, and it will hurt all athletes, whether they’re transgender, cisgender, or intersex, meaning they were born with any of several variations in sex characteristics.

The law does not include language about transgender or intersex athletes, and leaves room for anyone to accuse any athlete of being too masculine, too strong, too fast, or just not feminine enough. After the accusations, the athlete would have to present their birth certificate "at or near the time of the student’s birth" to essentially prove their gender.

That’s traumatizing enough if you’ve lived your entire life as a girl. It’s even more traumatizing if you’ve spent your whole life trying to prove you are one, the athletes say.

LGBTQ+ legal groups such as the Human Rights Campaign announced intentions to sue to overturn the new law. Before they can do so, the groups must determine the nature of the legal challenges, who has legal standing against the law and who the plaintiffs will be.

RELATED: Gov. DeSantis criticized for LGBTQ vetoes

There’s no guarantee those legalities will be worked out before the law takes effect July 1, or by the time the next school year starts.

Echevarria doesn’t compete on school teams anymore. He quit track and field in middle school because of the bullying and discrimination he endured as a young transgender athlete, both on and off the team, he said.

"You don’t fit in with the girls or the guys either. You’re this weird middle ground where no one knows what to do with you," he said. "They made me practice with the girls, and they’d be like ‘ew, lesbian’."

He was socially transitioning back then, so he was only out to friends and a few teachers, but not to family. That made it complicated to coordinate with the school about which team he could play on and which track uniforms he could wear.

Ultimately, it was the other students’ ridicule that drove him to quit the team, he said.

Almost a dozen transgender athletes have played on sports teams in Florida — without controversy — since inclusive policies were passed in 2013.

Florida is one of 16 states where high school athletic associations provide guidance that allows transgender students to join sports teams that align with their gender identity, according to the website, which tracks such policies.

The new law would reverse those inclusive policies, a move that could cost the state if athletic groups such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association pulls championships. The NCAA has several championship events scheduled in Florida in the coming year. An NCAA boycott could cost Florida some 50 tournaments and an estimated $75 million over the next five years, lawmakers say.

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Since 2013, only 11 high school athletes have gone through the documentation process with the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Echevarria was 13 when he came out as transgender. He wasn’t taking testosterone yet and said the other team members viewed him differently because he wasn’t "exactly" like them, and they didn’t really understand what it meant to be transgender.

Off the team, classmates called him by his "dead name" — meaning the one assigned to him at birth — and purposely misgendered him, he said. "It was horrible," he said.

In the two years since, he’s found family and community in an independent roller derby league, the Tri-County Terrors. The league welcomed him with open arms and never really made a big deal about his gender, which he said was incredibly affirming for his self-esteem and his gender expression. Without that unconditional acceptance, he says he "wouldn’t be here today."

But he still can’t completely relax in the face of legislation that seeks to erase people like him from society and sports entirely, he says. He worries the new law could create bias even in independent leagues like his, because laws affect how people perceive things.

The league already has to make some accommodations for him because roller derby is a rigorous contact sport, he said. They have to make sure another player doesn’t hit him in a vulnerable spot like his chest or ribs, more prone to injury when he wears a binder.

And he’s worried about his friends who compete on high school sports teams.

"I think it’s really ironic people say they don’t know any trans athletes and that they’d be able to tell," he said. "All of my trans friends are in sports. Every single one of them. My friend that went to my school was in lacrosse, and no one knew he was trans. He was just another one of the boys on the team. Most of the time, you can’t even tell."

Now the fight is on for the LGBTQ+ community to protect young people and athletes who are transgender — even as LGBTQ+ folks should be celebrating the community’s identity, said Joe Saunders, senior political director of Equality Florida.

"This is an attack that we will never forget," he said at a protest held in LGBTQ+ haven Wilton Manors the day DeSantis signed the bill. "Equality Florida and our partners here today will celebrate Pride this year with a renewed commitment to its origins: To stand up and push back against the violence and bigotry of people in power who, without our resistance, would see our communities made invisible."