By Ben Rappaport
Bladen County is one of the first counties in North Carolina to require participants in its parks and recreation programs to play on sports teams aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth.
The five Republicans and four Democrats who serve on the Bladen County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the policy last week without public discussion or input from citizens.
The Rev. Cameron McGill, a Bladen County commissioner, asked Parks and Recreation Director Grant Pait in June to look into creating the policy.
McGill told the Border Belt Independent he was prompted to take action when a Bladen County high school competed in an athletic event earlier this year against a team with a transgender athlete. He declined to name the school or the sport.
“I’m amazed and very saddened that we’re even having to have these conversations,” McGill told the BBI on Monday. “I certainly don’t understand those that historically have been the greatest defenders of femininity are now perfectly fine with a masculine, biological male competing — and in some cases, injuring — females in sports.”
The decision comes as North Carolina and the nation debate the role of transgender youth in sports. Language in the Bladen County policy is very similar to that in the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” which was passed by the Republican-led General Assembly this summer. The bill calls for prohibiting transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports in middle and high schools and colleges and universities. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill earlier this month, but it will likely be overridden.
Most recreational sports, including baseball, softball, basketball and soccer, offered by Bladen’s parks and rec department are for children ages 3 to 12. One program accepts children up to age 15.
The National Recreation and Park Association, a nonprofit focused on improving parks and recreation departments across the country, said in 2021 that it supports the inclusion of transgender youth in sports.
Exclusionary policies that target transgender youth “stand in direct opposition to NRPA’s values of equity and inclusion by cruelly harming an already marginalized community and promoting the exclusion of some children from enjoying the myriad benefits of public recreation spaces and programs,” the organization said.
Rebby Kern, director of education policy for Equality NC, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization based in Durham, said Bladen was the first county their organization knew of to enact a policy regarding transgender youth in parks and recreation sports programs. Kern said it sets a dangerous precedent, especially because it is targeted at children.
“This is a newer trend that we’re seeing: Localizing state efforts, particularly those that are exclusionary and targeting the trans community, particularly trans girls and women,” Kern told the BBI.
The harm inflicted by such policies goes beyond sports, according to Kern, who identifies as non-binary. They said policies increase risks for LGBTQ+ youth on both a physical and emotional level.
After the Bladen County board passed its new policy, Commissioner Charles Peterson asked to examine restroom policies that would require people to use county facilities that correspond to their assigned sex at birth rather than gender identity. McGill agreed, saying gender policies are “not just for sports and recreation.”
Such policies echo House Bill 2, which was signed into law in North Carolina in 2016 by then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. The bill was met with scrutiny from the LGBTQ+ community, and the most controversial parts of the bill were repealed in 2017.
McGill said he received no pushback from his colleagues on the Bladen County board regarding the transgender youth policy, and he did not anticipate pushback on a future proposal around restrooms.
“The rhetoric that’s fueling this is really concerning,” Kern said. “The conversation in Bladen follows the same national talking points from the same playbook, which is setting a very unfair and inaccurate story about trans girls.”
When asked if the policy would limit the benefits of parks and recreation for transgender youth, McGill said he believes it is equally important to consider the mental health of other children. He also espoused long-debunked points that being transgender itself is a mental illness.
The American Psychiatric Association no longer lists being transgender as a mental disorder, a change made in 2012. The World Health Organization also no longer classifies gender nonconformity as a mental illness as of 2019.
According to a 2021 national poll by PBS and NPR, only 28% of Americans support bills to bar transgender youth from competing on teams that align with their gender, while 67% oppose the bills. This opposition is consistent across the political spectrum with Democrats, Republicans and independents all opposing these bills at 66% or higher. People who know someone who is transgender are 5 points more likely to oppose these efforts than people who do not, according to PBS.
Kern said they believed the Bladen County policy would lead to lower self-esteem, hurt self-image and encourage further bullying among children.
“This policy will gatekeep socially in ways that lead to violence,” they said. “Unfortunately, that takes kids’ futures away by removing their opportunity to see themselves grow up in North Carolina.”