COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The South Carolina Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would ban transgender students from playing girls’ or women’s sports in public schools and colleges, likely clearing the way for the state to join a dozen others that have passed similar laws in recent years.
The 30-10 vote sends the bill back to the House to review changes made by senators. If the new version is approved by that chamber it would head to Gov. Henry McMaster, who appears likely to sign it.
If the bill were to become law, South Carolina would join other conservative states in requiring transgender students to compete with the gender listed on their birth certificates. Governors in Oklahoma and Arizona signed their laws at the end of March.
Just one Democrat voted for the bill and no Republicans voted against it.
The idea began emerging in legislatures about two years ago. Idaho passed the first of such legislation in 2020. Its law and a similar law in West Virginia have both been blocked by courts.
Supporters of a ban warn that in a rapidly changing society transgender girls would have an unfair biological advantage from having been born stronger males. They suggest girl winners' podiums and MVP awards could be taken over by transgender athletes to the detriment of sports in areas where it is a vital part of school life.
Opponents of the bill said it is a cruel idea, singling out students who aren't elite athletes but are just looking for a way to be a regular student, hanging out with friends and learning life lessons through competition.
In South Carolina, the High School League currently handles questions of whether a student should compete on boys or girls teams on a case-by-case basis. They have dealt with five cases in five years, Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto said.
"These are children, a lot of times, who are already experiencing challenges, sometimes being mistreated in school," Hutto said. “They just want to be kids like all the other kids. They just want to play on teams like all the other children.”
Hutto said Republicans appeared to be just picking on children who are different, since the problem isn't widespread and science is far from settled on the matter.
“Perhaps it’s not a problem until it is a problem,” responded Republican Sen. Richard Cash, who shepherded the bill through the Senate. “And then it’s too late.”
Republican Gov. McMaster said Wednesday he will review the bill, but supports its underlying concept. “I think the girls ought to play girls and the boys ought to play boys. That’s the way we’ve always done it,” McMaster said. When asked if he meant biological boys, the governor responded "are there any other kind?”
Research on children who identify as transgender is just beginning. A study released Wednesday online in Pediatrics found children who begin identifying as transgender at a young age tend to retain that identity at least for several years. But the study dealt mostly with children from white, high-income families who supported their transitions.
South Carolina lawmakers have yet to take up proposals passed in other conservative states like Texas, where Gov. Gregg Abbott has directed state agencies to consider placing transgender children in foster care or measures prohibiting gender-affirming health care treatments for transgender youth.
Earlier this week, Democratic lawmakers in more than a dozen states joined the LGBTQ Victory Institute and other advocates to push to offer legal refuge for transgender youth and their families.
Hutto also suggested sport-loving South Carolina could lose major events like women's and men's NCAA basketball tournament games and Southeastern Conference tournaments in Greenville over the next four years. So far, college sports organizations have not removed events, but pressure could be applied.
The NCAA moved tournament games and the NBA postponed an all-star game in North Carolina after that state's legislature approved a law in 2016 that directed transgender people to see public bathrooms and showers that match the gender on their birth certificates and repealed local laws expanding LGBTQ protections. They returned after the law was partially appealed.
The NCAA prevented South Carolina sites from hosting predetermined championships for well over a decade while the Confederate flag flew on the Statehouse lawn, restoring the games after the rebel banner was removed in 2015.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.