CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation in West Virginia to restrict gender definitions would not give women more rights and is a way for Republicans to crack down on transgender people, speakers said at a public hearing Thursday.
Dozens of speakers condemned the “Women’s Bill of Rights,” while a handful spoke in favor of it during the 45-minute hearing on the House floor at the state Capitol.
The legislation says that “equal” does not mean “equal” or “identical” with respect to equality of the sexes. It would define in state statutes and official public policies that a person’s sex is determined at birth and that gender equity terms cannot be substituted. It would also make certain gender-specific environments, such as athletics, locker rooms and bathrooms, non-discriminatory.
Max Varney, a student at Marshall University, said the bill uses women’s rights as a cover for transphobia.
“I stand before you as a transgender person in West Virginia. I am not a threat to the public, nor is my existence offensive,” Varney said. “This bill is dehumanizing. It is unfair. And it’s disgusting.
“Why am I not supposed to be considered a person too?” Varney continued. “Today I am here to show you that trans people in West Virginia are real. I’m real. I exist. And I deserve to be treated humanely.”
Fairness West Virginia, the only one in the state LGTBQ+ advocacy organization, said the bill does nothing to support women and would, among other things, prohibit transgender people from using bathrooms in government buildings that align with their gender identity.
The legislation is pending in the Republican-majority House of Delegates. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice strongly endorsed the bill at a meeting shortly before its introduction last month. Other states have seen similar measures: Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order on strict definitions of sex in August.
Both events were attended by former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who criticized an NCAA decision that allowed transgender swimmer Lia Thomas to compete against her in a women’s championship race in 2022. Gaines is part of the anti-trans group Independent Women’s Voice.
The bill’s language lacks details such as enforcement mechanisms and penalties, leaving its potential impact unclear. In other states with laws restricting transgender people from using bathrooms, officials have struggled to understand how they will be implemented.
Despite its broad “Bill of Rights” premise, the measure does not address issues such as reproductive care, abortion, or affordable child care. A lawmaker’s attempt to insert an equal pay clause was rejected when the chairman of a House committee ruled that it was not relevant to the bill, which is alternatively titled: “The West Virginia Act to Define Based Terms “On sex used in state law, help protect sex-differentiated spaces and ensure the accuracy of public data collection.”
Supporter Nila Thomson told the House Judiciary Committee public hearing that the bill “ensures my rights to safety, privacy and security. “I am very grateful that you took the initiative to introduce this bill.”
But Mollie Kennedy, community outreach director for the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called it a “bigoted bill.”
“We don’t need a women’s bill of rights to know what this legislature thinks about women,” she said. “It’s appalling and offensive.”
Another bill that would prohibit transgender students from using a school bathroom that aligns with their gender identity passed the House Education Committee last month. That bill has not been accepted by the judiciary committee.
Justice, a Republican, signed a bill last year banning medical care for minors, joining more than a dozen states that have enacted laws restricting or banning medically supported treatment for transgender youth.
Court challenges are likely.
In 2020, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a Virginia school board’s ban on transgender bathrooms was unconstitutional. West Virginia is in the jurisdiction of the Fourth Circuit.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a 12-year-old transgender girl from West Virginia to continue competing on her high school’s girls’ sports teams while a lawsuit over a state ban continues. The ban prohibits transgender athletes from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.