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Duke students, alumni urge university to condemn NC bills targeting transgender youth

Kate Murphy
·6 min read

Duke University students and alumni are asking the university to take a stand against proposed North Carolina legislation that they say will be harmful to transgender children and adults.

The Duke LGBTQ+ Network and all 12 LGBTQ+ student groups on campus signed a joint statement Tuesday asking Duke to publicly state its opposition to three bills that have been filed in the North Carolina Legislature, as it did in 2016 with House Bill 2, known as “The Bathroom Bill.”

The groups say the bills criminalize providing gender-related medical care to people younger than 21; allow doctors to refuse care to LGBTQ+ individuals; and prevent transgender youth from playing on school sports teams that reflect their gender identity.

“As a leading medical, research, and athletic institution, Duke University has a responsibility to protect transgender individuals, especially transgender youth, and affirm its values,” the statement says. “If the university does not speak for itself, its silence will.”

Republican lawmakers have sponsored all three bills, which have drawn national attention.

The sports-related bill was introduced in March and is being discussed in N.C. House committees. The healthcare-related bills were filed last week and are being discussed in Senate committees.

“No matter where these bills go, the climate is shifting by the rhetoric of these bills when we need to be uplifting our community instead,” said Rebby Kern, Director of Education Policy at Equality NC, a statewide advocacy organization seeking equal rights and protections for LGBTQ North Carolinians.

Grace O’Connor, a 20-year-old junior at Duke, said hearing about these “disturbing” bills was a huge disappointment. O’Connor is president of Blue Devils United, the largest LGBTQ+ student group on campus. Blue Devils United is one of the groups to sign the letter to the Duke administration.

Duke is an athletic and healthcare powerhouse in North Carolina and needs to speak out against the proposed legislation and policies, she said. As a student leader, she said it’s important to step up as an ally to transgender athletes.

Sports were an important part of her life growing up, particularly when she came out as queer in high school and relied on support from her swim team coaches and teammates.

“It’s unethical to exclude someone from sports, just because they don’t fit your definition of what a woman is, or what is a man or what a person is and who can be in athletics,” O’Connor said.

She said having correctly gendered activities and sports is validating for transgender youth.

“Although it seems small, those moments are very important to individuals struggling with their gender identity,” O’Connor said.

Duke University has not responded to the student and alumni concerns.

Restricting participation in sports

The first proposed bill, HB 358, called the “Save Women’s Sports Act” restricts transgender athletes by prohibiting transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams in middle and high school and college. It’s part of a nationwide effort and is similar to other bills introduced in 30 states.

The N.C. High School Athletic Association allows students to compete consistent with their gender identity, but this bill would stop that. The NCAA also has rules to allow transgender athletes to compete in college sports and warned state lawmakers, in a recent statement, against limiting their participation.

The Duke LGBTQ+ Network notes the bill’s authors cite research from Duke professor Doriane Coleman at Duke University School of Law to support their position.

Coleman, co-founder of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, published an op-ed criticizing the NC bill and its use of her research as a justification for it. Her organization argues there shouldn’t be an outright ban of transgender girls and women within girls’ and women’s competitive sports programs, but they should be restricted if they have experienced all or part of male puberty.

The Duke student and alumni groups say Duke can’t claim to prohibit gender discrimination while also allowing its name to be used in legislation that targets transgender youth.

“Allowing state legislatures to invoke Duke’s reputation as a world-class research institution to discriminate against others is unconscionable and will do extreme and long-lasting reputational damage to the university, the law school, and the athletic department,” the statement says.

In addition to a public statement condemning the bills, they’re asking Duke to withdraw funding, branding and university support for activities that “seek to harm and spread misinformation about transgender people, particularly transgender youth.”

Limiting access to healthcare

The group also argues Duke can’t “stand idle” as recently proposed bills challenge the medical care that it provides to transgender patients.

The Duke University Health System is a leader in North Carolina and the Southeast in providing medical care for transgender patients. Duke has an adolescent gender clinic, an adult gender clinic, and a sexual and gender minority primary care clinic.

The second bill, Senate Bill 514, called the “Youth Health Protection Act” prevents doctors from performing gender reassignment surgery or providing hormone treatment for transgender people younger than 21. It also pushes state employees to immediately notify parents in writing if their child displays “gender nonconformity” or wants to be treated in a way that doesn’t align with the child’s sex.

The third bill recently introduced, SB 515, is called the “Health Care Heroes Conscience Protection Act.” It protects health care institutions, insurance companies, doctors and other medical practitioners who refuse health care service to an individual “on the basis of conscience” related to their “religious, moral, ethical or philosophical beliefs or principles.”

“Denying trans young people access to medical care is dangerous,” Kern said.

Kern said SB 515 is refusal of care under the guise of faith and is clear discrimination of trans individuals.

A ‘national attack’ on trans community

The bills contradict the evidence in the medical community that improving access to gender-affirming care improves outcomes for trans people by lowering high rates of depression, substance abuse, suicide attempts and reliance on self-administered hormones, Kern said.

Equality NC wants legislators to pass pro-equality bills that make communities more inclusive and safer for LGBTQ+ people. That includes an outright ban of conversion therapy, fully repealing HB 2, outlawing the “gay panic defense” and passing statewide non-discrimination laws.

“Right now, there’s a coordinated national attack on the transgender and gender non-conforming community,” Kern said. “These attacks are harmful, they’re dangerous and there is more that our General Assembly can be doing to move our state forward instead of backwards.”