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HELENA — Lawmakers on Friday passed a bill, largely along party lines, that would prohibit girls and women who are transgender from participating on women’s school sports teams. The polarizing bill has had a tumultuous journey since the early days of the Legislature. In a series of votes this week, the majority-held Republican House and Senate pushed House Bill 112 over its final hurdles, clearing its path to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, mirrors many bans and restrictions on transgender athletes, including those in elementary and middle school, cropping up in state legislatures nationwide. So far this year, similar measures have passed in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. Governors in other states, including the Republican executive in North Dakota, have vetoed their states’ versions of the same policy.

Proponents of the bills have broadly argued that  transgender girls and women, who were assigned male at birth, have an unfair advantage over their cisgender peers, regardless of whether they’ve started puberty or have taken testosterone suppressants as required by the NCAA

“The fundamental question is, why do we have women’s sports?” said Fuller, advocating for his bill in late January on the House floor with comments that failed to recognize the legitimacy of transgender identities. “Men always have physical advantages over females, physiological advantage, and that is the reason we have girls’ sports.”

Medical providers, education associations, transgender individuals, their families and supporters have vehemently opposed the bill, saying it fundamentally misunderstands the identities of transgender people and is a solution to a nonexistent problem that will have cruel results on a marginalized group of young people. Opponents, including the Montana University System and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, have also pointed to the possible negative financial impacts, including potential litigation and economic boycotts for athletic events.

“Beyond the risks that we know can potentially exist financially, we also, just as this has been making its way through, have heard that it really is having a very negative impact on many people in our community,” said Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, speaking to House lawmakers Thursday before a vote on the bill. “I ask everyone to please vote no.”

After a rocky hearing in the Senate in late March, lawmakers began debating amendments to void the bill if the federal government intends to strip funding from public schools and universities for lack of compliance with Title IX, the federal statute prohibiting discrimination in sports, which Fuller and other proponents insist is not a looming threat. A committee of representatives and senators voted earlier in the week to attach an amendment to HB 112 outlining that provision, which allows the dispute to unfold within the Title IX process before the bill would be nullified. 

The amended bill passed final votes in the House and Senate Friday with some Republicans voting against the measure with Democrats. It sailed through the House by a substantial margin and narrowly cleared the Senate by a handful of Republican votes. 

With the bill now on its way to the governor, pressure is mounting from proponents and opponents for Gianforte to either sign or veto the bill. Advocates for transgender youth and the LGBTQ community recently held meetings with both Gianforte and lieutenant governor Kristen Juras, urging the administration to reject several measures.

The mother of a transgender adolescent in Bozeman, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid drawing unwanted attention to her child, attended Tuesday’s closed-door meeting with Gianforte. She said she hopes the governor will veto HB 112, particularly because of its impact on younger transgender kids. 

“It’s already a population that needs extra support and more community around them for their mental health,” she said. “And now we’re making that more inaccessible. So that’s really concerning.”

A spokeswoman for Gianforte did not answer a question about who else the governor has met to discuss the bills opposed by LGBTQ advocates, including HB 112. Another bill, HB 427, would have banned some medical treatments for transgender youth diagnosed with gender dysphoria. It failed to advance out of the Senate on Monday

“The governor has an open-door policy, and values the input of individuals from all sides on issues that are important to them,” spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said in a Thursday email.

Gianforte has not indicated whether he intends to sign HB 112. 

“I think it would be a huge statement from him that Montana is a safe place for people. All people,” the Bozeman mother said of a potential veto. “And that it’s a safe place for all kids.”

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare and criminal justice systems, including public health matters such as substance use disorders and mental health care. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.