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Duke students advocate for LGBTQ+ community in NC as lawmakers consider discriminatory bills

North Carolina has joined states across the country in considering bills that oppose LGBTQ+ rights, and Duke students are fighting against them—including pushing against one bill that cites research by a Duke Law professor.

Three bills recently introduced in the N.C. General Assembly deny LGBTQ+ people protection of their rights and access to public services. One, H.B. 358 or the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” would block transgender girls from participating in girls’ school sports teams. 

Of the six academic and journalistic articles cited in H.B. 358, three are co-authored or authored by a Duke Law professor, Doriane Coleman. Coleman has publicly condemned the N.C. bill and other bills across the country for excluding transgender athletes from school sports and misusing her research.

The two other bills deny LGBTQ+ individuals’ access to health care. S.B. 514, the “Youth Health Protection Act,” would prevent people younger than 21 years old from having gender-affirming health care, and health-care providers would be able to refuse services to LGBTQ+ patients under S.B. 515, the “Health Care Heroes Conscience Protection Act.”

Junior Grace O’Connor, president of Blue Devils United, the largest LGBTQ+ undergraduate group at Duke, explained that members of BDU engage with members of the Duke and Durham community in their work to support the transgender community and advocacy for inclusion of transgender athletes. She explained that BDU shares what they have learned from reading legislation affecting the LGBTQ+ community in their meetings and in social media posts.

Co-signed by more than 10 Duke organizations, the Duke LGBTQ+ Network released a statement against the discriminatory legislation on April 13. The LGBTQ+ Network statement notes that the legislation cites Duke Law research and asks Duke to release a statement opposing the legislation. 

Student activism

When the N.C. legislature held a Wednesday hearing on H.B. 358, Justin Sykes, a transgender man, spoke to his lived experience as a former cross-country athlete and student at Appalachian State University, according to NBC WITN. Sykes described the significance of support and affirmation of gender identity to transgender athletes who are “trying to live their life, and sports is how they find their joy.”

“Team sports within high schools, within communities, is how people are able to find themselves through movement, and these bills are going to take that away from them,” Sykes said.

“A 2017 Human Rights Campaign Foundation report found that while 68 percent of young people participate in organized sports, only 12 percent of transgender girls do,” Elizabeth Sharrow, associate professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s School of Public Policy and Department of History, wrote in an April 2021 Washington Post analysis

“That means transgender students are less likely to reap the rewards of athletic participation, which include improved academic performance, better physical and mental health, meaningful and even life-changing social ties, and other benefits that help build healthy and fulfilling lives,” Sharrow wrote.

O’Connor, who identifies as a queer cisgender woman and an ally to transgender individuals, said that H.B. 358 is “extremely harmful.” Gender-affirming sports teams are an outlet for LGBTQ+ youth to belong to a group supportive of their identity, mental health and development, O’Connor said. 

As a high school swimmer, O’Connor said that sports was a “huge part of [her] development as a person,” and school sports should be a space for transgender and gender non-conforming youth to have an equitable experience.

“[H.B. 358] really harms all women, transgender women and cisgender women, by excluding transgender women,” O’Connor said. “They require people to check medical records on what their gender is, or what their sex is assigned at birth, or their legal sex. I think that is extremely discriminatory.”

O’Connor also spoke to how the “Duke label” gives power to the research used in the legislation. Bills opposing transgender athletes participation in school sports across the country reference the Duke research, according to the LGBTQ+ Network statement.  

“We really think Duke, as a powerhouse of athletics and healthcare of its own, should make a statement against these legislative bills,” O’Connor said.

Brett Ries is director of advocacy for Duke OutLaw, the LGBTQ+ law student group, and said that OutLaw believes H.B. 358 is “based on transphobic stereotypes that aren't founded in current practice.” Ries cited transgender athletes currently competing with athletes of their gender identity and not “dominating sports, like the mainstream movement wants people to believe.” 

From South Dakota, Ries said that he is “used to legislators bringing hateful legislation to the LGBTQ community.” For every instance of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, he said that it feels like “an attack on your community.”

“It just impacts your sense of belonging and your feeling of welcomeness as well,” Ries said. “When students, faculty [and] administration don't speak up about it, it fosters that idea that maybe I'm not feeling as welcome as I ought to be.”

That’s where Duke OutLaw comes in, Ries explained. Ries also noted that Duke OutLaw recently won Duke Law’s annual organization award for Greatest Role in Building Relationships. The student group is “pretty quick to respond and provide insight as LGBTQ individuals,” he said.

Ries also spoke to his lived experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community within the law school.

“I feel like I can openly talk about my experience as a bisexual man while we're in class, while we're in office hours,” Ries said. “And so I don't think there is an issue of animosity toward LGBTQ individuals with our faculty or within the Law School. I just think that the image that the Law School itself sometimes presents doesn't fully commit to that ideal or what they're practicing, within the classroom or within the law school.”

Duke Law

This has not been the first time this academic year that students have criticized the Law School for its actions regarding LGBTQ+ rights. In October 2020, nearly 200 Duke Law students sent a letter to Law School Dean Kerry Abrams demanding that a professor with “unapologetic anti-LGBTQ+ views,” Helen Alvare, professor of law at George Mason University, be disinvited from a Duke Law event or the event be canceled altogether. Duke Law still hosted the event with Alvare.

Ries said that, in addition to the Law School’s not making a statement about the anti-transgender legislation, the event with Alvare was “another disheartening experience, where we felt the University or the Law School's silence said more than what I think the administration thought that it said.”

O’Connor similarly noted that she was disappointed with the Law School for the controversies involving the school and the LGBTQ+ community.

Andrew Park, executive director of communication and events at Duke Law, provided a statement from Abrams to The Chronicle. 

“The Law School is committed to ensuring that every member of our community is welcomed and has the opportunity to thrive, and we oppose discrimination in all its forms. We are also committed to ensuring faculty and students have the freedom to explore issues of their choosing and engage in discussions with individuals who hold a wide range of viewpoints,” Abrams wrote.

Coleman wrote in an email to The Chronicle that transgender students have the right “like everyone else” to participate in school sports. “Our work is aimed at helping to define the parameters that meet both Title IX and the needs of the student-athletes,” she wrote.

Coleman wrote that she has conducted her research alongside transgender researchers in science and policy. She is also a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, and Duke Law also sponsored a WSPWG event. 

Asked about responses to that group not having any transgender members, she replied that the group acknowledges that “many individuals chose to work behind the scenes and don’t want to endanger their personal safety by taking a visible public role,” and that the group has been “in regular contact with many transgender colleagues.”

Asked to provide evidence for her research examining participation in women’s sports based on athletes’ levels of testosterone, Coleman cited studies on athletic performance and hormones. She  wrote that “testosterone is not determinative of outcomes within groups” but is a “primary driver of the performance gap,” and acknowledged that further studies involving transgender athletes should be conducted.

Sharrow, who is also a former collegiate athlete, wrote in the Washington Post article that “athletic performance results from a complex interaction of many factors, not just hormones or chromosomes.”

O’Connor advocated that Duke Law, in addition to the University, should issue a statement declaring their commitment to LGBTQ+ students, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming students. 

LGBTQ+-affirming state legislation

On March 30, N.C. legislators introduced a set of LGBTQ+ -inclusive legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly. The package of affirming legislation comes five years after the passage of H.B. 2, the N.C. bill that prohibited individuals who were not cisgender from using public bathrooms according to their gender identity and restricted cities’ authority in enacting nondiscrimination measures. One of the four newly introduced bills, H.B. 451, would repeal H.B. 2 in full.

Another bill would ban the use of the LGBTQ+ panic defense, so that a defendant would be barred from citing the victim’s sexuality, gender or sex as a justification for the defendant’s assault. 

Ries, as an aspiring attorney, said that this legislation is “exactly the type of solution” that he wants to advocate for. He explained that 38 states still allow the gay panic defense and trans panic defense. Banning the defense would be “one of the best ways to increase LGBTQ equality, specifically in the criminal justice context,” he said.

“As long as the gay panic defense is still legal, I’m here to fight,” Ries said.

The third bill, Equality for All, would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in housing, employment, public accommodations, education and other services. The Mental Health Protection Act would ban the use of conversion therapy on individuals under 18 years old and adults with disabilities.

“I look forward to having legislation that is LGBTQI+ friendly and gender affirming, so we can really support our trans youth specifically, but the entire LGBTQIA+ community and ban conversion therapy once and for all in North Carolina and allow really radical inclusion,” O’Connor said.

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