Gus Kenworthy
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Judge Rules West Virginia Trans Girl Can Try Out for Girls' Sports

Becky Pepper-Jackson

A federal judge in West Virginia issued an injunction Wednesday against the state’s law barring transgender athletes from competing on school sports teams for their gender identity.

The order by Judge Joseph R. Goodwin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia means the state can’t enforce the law against Becky Pepper-Jackson, the 11-year-old trans girl who brought the case, while her suit is pending. The suit “seeks relief only insofar as this law applies to her,” Goodwin wrote. She will now be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country and track teams at her school.

It was the second court victory of the day for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is one of the groups representing Pepper-Jackson. Earlier, a federal judge in Arkansas issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the state’s law banning gender-affirming medical care for minors. The ACLU is representing four young trans people, their families, and two doctors in that case, and the injunction applies statewide.

The injunctions don’t mean either law has been struck down yet, but they show the judges think the plaintiffs have a good chance of winning their cases. Pepper-Jackson has made “a clear showing that she will likely succeed on the merits” of her case, Goodwin wrote.

“At this point, I have been provided with scant evidence that this law addresses any problem at all, let alone an important problem,” Goodwin explained. “When the government distinguishes between different groups of people, those distinctions must be supported by compelling reasons. Having determined that Plaintiff has a likelihood of success in demonstrating that this statute is unconstitutional as it applies to her and that it violates Title IX, Plaintiff’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction is GRANTED.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is the federal law banning sex discrimination in education. The West Virginia law also likely violates the guarantee of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Goodwin wrote.

He also noted that Pepper-Jackson, who is on puberty-blocking drugs, “has shown that she will not have any inherent physical advantage over the girls she would compete against on the girls’ cross country and track teams. Further, permitting B.P.J. to participate on the girls’ teams would not take away athletic opportunities from other girls.” Trans  people make up a small percentage of the U.S. population and an even smaller percentage of those interested in school sports, he wrote.

“I am excited to know that I will be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country team and follow in the running shoes of my family,” Pepper-Jackson said in an ACLU press release. “It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

Pepper-Jackson is represented in her case by the national ACLU and its West Virginia affiliate, Lambda Legal, and the law firm of Cooley LLP. “Becky — like all students — should have the opportunity to try out for a sports team and play with her peers,” Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in the release. “We hope this also sends a message to other states to stop demonizing trans kids to score political points and to let these kids live their lives in peace.”

“This is great news for Becky, and while our work is not done yet, today’s ruling jibes with similar rulings in other courts across the country,” added Avatara Smith-Carrington, Tyron Garner Memorial Law Fellow at Lambda Legal. “It is our hope that courts recognize and address discrimination when they see it, and nowhere is it more visible than in these stark attacks against trans youth.”

A federal court last year blocked enforcement of Idaho’s trans-exclusionary sports law, and this year another one dismissed a challenge to Connecticut’s policy of allowing trans students to compete under their gender identity. Also this year, on other trans issues, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court’s ruling that a Virginia school district had unlawfully discriminated against trans student Gavin Grimm by barring him from the boys’ restroom.

There was another victory against trans-exclusionary sports legislation Wednesday, as the Louisiana House of Representatives failed to override Gov. John Bel Edwards’s veto of such a bill. The state’s Senate Tuesday mustered the necessary votes to override, but the House came up short, so Edwards’s veto stands, and the measure will not become law.

Two Democratic governors, Edwards and Laura Kelly of Kansas, and one Republican, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, have vetoed such bills. They have been signed into law, however, this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, and West Virginia, and last year in Idaho. South Dakota’s governor has issued executive orders with the same exclusionary effect.

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