State Laws Banning Transgender Students’ Participation in Sports Harm Health and Wellbeing
April 19, 2023
Laws banning or heavily restricting students who are transgender from playing on athletic teams with students of the same gender are increasing, as are challenges to such laws. Human rights advocates are closely watching as one case, B.P.J. v. West Virginia, proceeds through the courts. The case’s outcome may influence the course of similar legal challenges across the country.
In 2022, lawmakers introduced a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills across the United States. This record has already been surpassed in 2023. Many of these bills specifically impact public schools, including bathroom bills and “don’t say gay” bills. Some recent bills even require teachers to report students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to parents, such as those introduced in Indiana and New Hampshire. In particular, laws banning or heavily restricting students who are transgender from playing on athletic teams with students of the same gender have become increasingly widespread since 2020. These blunt attacks on transgender students’ involvement in sports is distinctly harmful because it contributes to removing schools as a potential haven for transgender youth.
According to Movement Advancement Project, 21 states have passed laws that ban transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, with an apparent focus on prohibiting transgender girls and women from participation rather than transgender boys. For example, Indiana’s HB 1041 (passed in 2022) requires that all athletic teams and sports be designated as a male, female, or coeducational team, and specifically prohibits students who were assigned male at birth from participating on a team designated as female, with no restrictions for students assigned female at birth.
Laws broadly banning transgender students’ participation in sports introduce unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions on students’ access to healthful activities. There are physical, psychological, and academic benefits of sports for students, including higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of depression, greater school belonging, better grades, and higher educational and occupational aspirations. These benefits have the potential to offset the high rates of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation experienced by students who are transgender, possibly due to minority stress caused by discrimination and oppression. Recognizing the important benefits associated with sports participation, advocates have filed lawsuits challenging exclusionary sports bans, leading in several prominent cases to preliminary injunctions blocking enforcement of state laws.
One such case, B.P.J. v. West Virginia, recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The case stems from West Virginia’s HB 3293, passed in 2021, which prohibits female students who are transgender from participating on female athletic teams sponsored by any public secondary school or a state institution of higher education because of their sex assigned at birth. The plaintiff, a transgender girl prohibited from trying out for middle school sports teams, argued that the law violates both the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) which require equal access to federally-supported education programs regardless of sex.
A U.S. District Court upheld the West Virginia law on January 5, 2023, finding that the law’s definition of “girl,” which is based on “biological sex,” does not violate the Equal Protection Clause because it is substantially related to the state’s interest in providing equal athletic opportunities for females. The Court also held that the law complies with Title IX because it does not completely exclude transgender girls from school athletics, but instead designates on which team they are allowed to play. The plaintiff appealed and on February 22, 2023, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction pending appeal, preventing enforcement of the law while the case is pending before it. The state of West Virginia then requested Supreme Court review of the Fourth Circuit’s injunction, landing the case on the Supreme Court’s “shadow docket.” On April 6, 2023, the Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s injunction without explanation.
Human rights advocates are closely watching as B.P.J. v. West Virginia proceeds through the courts. The case’s outcome in the Fourth Circuit may influence the course of similar legal challenges across the country. Furthermore, B.P.J. (or a case like it) may wind up before the Supreme Court in the near future, eventually requiring a decision on the merits. More broadly, court decisions in B.P.J. and similar cases may signal the extent to which state laws discriminating against people who are transgender will be tolerated.
Note: Although not the subject of this article, relevant proposed changes to Title IX and its accompanying regulations have also come into play in recent months, including a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives and a Department of Education notice of proposed rulemaking.
This post was developed by Marisa London, Student Legal Researcher, Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region Office and J.D./M.P.H. Candidate, University of Michigan (2025). The post was reviewed by Colleen Healy Boufides, J.D., Co-Director, Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region Office.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.