More than 40 people testified Thursday against a pair of Republican-backed bills that would ban transgender female athletes from participating in girls’ school and college sports in Maine.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, and Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, are similar to legislation being pushed by conservatives in at least 30 other states and focus largely on precluding transgender women and girls from participating on female sports teams.

O’Connor said the intent of her bill, titled “An Act to Ban Biological Males from Participating in Women’s Sports,” is to protect the rights and safety of women amid what she called a “national growing trend to allow transgender males to participate in female sports.”

“I feel it is imperative that the rights of biological females be protected against injustices and (to) challenge the unfair consequences that are descending from an ideology that seeks to eradicate the very concept of women in sports,” O’Connor said.

About a dozen people, including several national advocates for similar bans in other states and two representatives from the conservative Christian Civic League of Maine, spoke in support of the legislation during the hearing before the Judiciary Committee. Over 40 others spoke against the bills, including Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin, who read a statement on behalf of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. Dozens of others offered written testimony opposing the bills.

“Maine is a state that treats all individuals with dignity and respect; denying transgender girls the same opportunity all girls have to play sports, to learn leadership skills and to be part of a team undermines our fundamental values of equity,” Mills said. “These discriminatory bills should not become law.”

Supporters of  L.D. 926 and L.D. 1401 said girls are being robbed of victories in competitions and even scholarship opportunities by transgender girls who are biological males and have physical superiority.

Liz Caruso, a Caratunk resident, said she might never have become the standout athlete she was in high school and college if she were competing against biological males.

“I would never have played and would have missed out on all of the personal victories of pushing my endurance levels, of pushing my limits, of growing my self-confidence, of the joys and adrenaline of playing, of scoring, of defeating, of winning, and taking on the responsibility that is involved in being on a team,” Caruso said. “I would never have been recruited into college.”

Identifying as a female does change a person’s physical characteristics, she said.

“Choosing to be a different sex does not alter one’s chromosomes, lung capacity or bones,” Caruso said. “A biological male is still a physical man competing against the smaller, weaker sex. Don’t steal life’s opportunities from our girls.”

Bills targeting transgender athletes are gaining traction across the country, with significant support from groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization focused on issues of religious freedom. The alliance represents the plaintiffs in a Connecticut lawsuit over high school track championships won by transgender girls, and also college athletes appealing a federal judge’s injunction that blocked Idaho’s 2020 law banning transgender females from playing girls’ or women’s sports. Idaho was the first state to pass such a law.

In March, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a similar bill into law. South Dakota’s Legislature passed a bill that Gov. Kristi Noem didn’t sign, contending it went too far by including college sports. Also in March, the Arkansas Legislature passed its Fairness in Women’s Sports, requiring that sports participation be based on birth gender.

Maine was among the first states to allow participation based on gender identity. Across the country, 41 of the 51 state high school athletic associations (including the District of Columbia) have written policies on transgender sports participation. But they vary widely, from open inclusion (16 states) to requiring some form of proof of gender identity (14 states, including Maine). Eleven states require students to participate based on the gender listed on their birth certificates.

The Maine Principals’ Association, the agency that oversees high school sports in Maine, has had an inclusive policy since 2013 that allows students to participate based on gender identity. The MPA requires transgender students or their parents to request a hearing with its Gender Identity Equity Committee. The hearing confirms that a student’s gender identity has been consistent, and that allowing the gender identity waiver would not create an unfair or unsafe competitive situation.

Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director, told the Portland Press Herald in March that there have been over 30 such hearings, and all the athletes were approved, although that doesn’t mean they all chose to participate.

Those testifying against the bills, including several student athletes and sports coaches from Maine schools, said they have not seen transgender girls attempting to infiltrate girls and women’s sports for the purpose of stealing glory or scholarships. Instead, they said, the students are athletes who simply want to play and compete based on their gender identity.

Gianna Romano, a South Portland resident and assistant field hockey coach for Portland High School, said she once played on a team with a transgender girl, and she described the bill as unnecessary and hurtful.

“I didn’t care, my teammates didn’t care, my coaches didn’t care,” she said. “There were no whispers or winks or nods or any (of that). There were no locker room conversations – no one cared.”

Others testifying against the ban said protecting the rights of women means protecting them for all women, including those who are transgender.

“It’s been interesting to hear folks indicate that anyone who opposes the bills that are being discussed (doesn’t) support women or girls,” said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“It’s a false narrative that you have to support one or the other,” Sneirson said. “Our agency supports both. The proposals here directly violate the Maine Human Rights Act mandate that schools in our state not make decisions about who can participate in school activities based on protected class characteristics, things you don’t choose about yourself. These bills do exactly that and tell schools they have to make decisions based solely on gender identity.”

Falmouth Middle School eighth-grader Dahlia Verrill said that as a cisgender girl, she opposes the bills because she has been taught since she was little that sports are about having fun.

“Then why are we now telling trans kids they can’t participate, too?” she asked. “Growing up from these recreational soccer games to competitive club sports we focus on teamwork, leadership and communications. By including transgender athletes we are teaching more than this. We are teaching equality, acceptance and friendship beyond boundaries. We should strive to be inclusive without pushing other people down.”

The bills will be the subject of a work session before the committee, likely next week, before they go to the full Legislature for consideration later in the month.

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