Maddie Jenifer stood glued to her mother’s side behind the podium, staring at a panel of preened and suited strangers staring right back at her. Maddie was the first transgender child some of them had ever seen, let alone spoken to. Still, the North Carolina’s House judiciary committee was introducing legislation that would have banned Maddie from playing sports for her high school that fall.
North Carolina is among 37 states that have introduced some form of ‘Save Women’s Sports’ legislation that would ban transgender girls and women from playing on school sports teams that don’t reflect their sex at birth. North Carolina’s version targeted transgender girls from kindergarten through high school, though some states have expanded their bills to also include college sports, bucking NCAA transgender protections that have been in place since 2010.
Utah, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia and Florida have all signed their own versions into law. All are being legally challenged.
The conservative coalition asserts that transgender participation in girls’ and women’s sports is not only dangerous to both the transgender and cis athlete, but also creates an unfair physical advantage for the former. Maddie’s motivations don’t seem as nefarious.
I’m not a competitive person, the quiet 13-year-old told the Guardian about wanting to play sports. I’ve just always wanted to be with my friends.
When Maddie was two years old, she loved nothing more than to parade around in the teacher’s high heel shoes at Sunday School. Maddie played with her older sister’s toys and dressed up in her clothes. At the playground, Maddie’s mother, Katie, watched her child run right past the boys for the huddle of little girls. All of Maddie’s friends were girls.
None of his mattered to Katie until she tried to register herself and Maddie for a Mommy and Me tumbling class for girls – where all of Maddie’s friends went – but was rejected. Katie quietly found another gym, but Maddie wasn’t engaged without her friends.
I don’t know how competitive she would have been, Katie said. She really wanted to learn gymnastics [at the first gym]. We had a trampoline and she wanted to learn how to tumble.
When Maddie was able to express herself verbally, it became clear that she didn’t recognize herself as a boy at all. Why can’t I wear a dress to church like Grace? she asked at age four.
Katie let Maddie dress the way she wanted to at home, but at school and church, where she had to dress as a boy, Maddie was miserable. I think God messed up, she told her mother thoughtfully as they left services one morning. I think I’m the girl and Grace is the boy.
Changing Maddie for bed one night, Katie stopped in her tracks when her child told her that she wanted to hurt herself.
She saw parts of her body that didn’t align with how she felt, so she said she wanted to cut it off, said Katie. That really scared me. I hadn’t heard her speak like that before. I hadn’t known she was thinking of those kinds of things.
With her husband still skeptical, Katie found a therapist who evaluated Maddie and noted that the five-year-old never wavered in her beliefs. This wasn’t a phase.
It was decided that Maddie would transition in the summer between kindergarten and first grade. Maddie’s father took her to the mall to buy her a new wardrobe.
She immediately changed from a very withdrawn, depressed little kid to a very happy, vibrant, and outgoing kid – literally overnight, said Katie. Leaving the house for church or school wasn’t an issue anymore. She was happy to go to show off her new dress.
On Maddie’s first day of school, the local news station showed up to interview parents at pick-up time about the trans kid. It set off a firestorm, said Katie. That was the first moment where I asked myself if we’d need a lawyer.
At age eight, Maddie practiced with her softball team for a month before the parks and recreation department called Katie the night before the first game to tell her there was a policy where a participant’s gender on their birth certificate had to match their team. Katie showed up with Maddie the next day anyway, not sure what her daughter would find.
Nobody came to enforce it, said Katie, who looked over her shoulder the entire game. Maddie played the entire season, but Katie knew it was only a question of time before someone or something created an obstacle to stop them. Katie didn’t have to wait long for a sign.
In 2016, then-North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed into law House Bill No 2, a statewide statute that banned transgender individuals from using public restrooms other than those corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The law also preemptively prevented local governments from adopting anti-discrimination legislation to protect sexual identity. The highly-criticized statute was partially repealed by incoming governor Roy Cooper a year later. By then, Katie had enrolled at North Carolina Central University to become a lawyer.
HB 2 was the last straw, said Katie, who lived apart from the family for a period to attend law school, while the entire family continued to navigate Maddie’s challenging childhood. Maddie had her share of embarrassments, but she didn’t give up on sports. She became a co-captain of her cheerleading squad and was about to play her first softball game of the season when the pandemic hit.
In April, Katie and Maddie stood in front of the state judiciary committee, so they could see Maddie in person, so they could see just who this proposed statute would hurt. Maddie isn’t a runaway athlete. She actually has asthma. She’s simply a kid who loves sleepovers, video games and playing sports with her friends.
I’m glad I was there and I could hear what they were saying and trying to argue – that they were right and we were wrong, said Maddie, who let her newly graduated lawyer mother do the talking. It was difficult to hear them say trans kids aren’t real boys or girls. It’s hard to hear them contemplating my existence.
Maddie was one of many transgender girls to appear before their state governments across the country this spring. A few of the girls spoke directly to lawmakers. Parents of transgender children, like Katie, pleaded for understanding and compassion.
It may sound just like a small thing – participating in a sport, but it’s so much more than that, Kate told her legislators. It’s about being on a team just like any other girl. It’s about feeling included and accepted just for who she is.
On 29 April, House Speaker Thomas Moore told the Associated Press that the proposed legislation wouldn’t leave committee for a vote because the bill wasn’t necessary. According to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, it had received less than 10 requests from transgender teenagers who wanted to play sports – and that’s since its inception in 2019. When pressed further by Raleigh’s News and Observer, Speaker Moore confirmed there hadn’t been a single transgender-athlete complaint in the state.
Transgender athletes will come to the forefront when New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics later this month – not without much debate, and with more to come if she fares well.
Maddie said she might try out for another sport when she starts high school this fall. I think I might like to try diving, she said shyly, reminding her mother of the three-year-old at Mommy and Me who wanted to learn to tumble. I like that feeling of flying through the air.