Many Montanans again lined up to oppose legislation aimed at transgender athletes and minors as lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on two of the most contentious bills this session.
The hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee marked the first time House Bills 112 and 427 were heard in the Senate after clearing the House.
Again opponents far outnumbered supporters for the bills that would ban transgender women from playing on women's sports teams and not allow gender-affirming surgery for minors and would block doctors for making referrals for such care.
Both bills are carried by Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish. The legislation came through the House on mostly party-line votes with Republican support, and opposition from all Democrats and a handful of Republicans.
HB 427 is a new attempt at a previous bill from Fuller that was defeated in the House. In advance of the bills' hearings, dozens of advocates for the LGBTQ community held a rally on the Capitol steps Monday in protest.
On Wednesday, Fuller told the committee HB 112 was meant to protect the integrity of women's sports. Through his statements, Fuller portrayed transgender women as men.
"Letting boys compete on girls teams violates the Equal Protection Clause because actual girls will be denied athletic opportunities that were created just for them," Fuller told the committee.
Much of the proponent testimony said that transgender women would have unfair advantages in sports, though there are conflicting studies on the topic. A Montana doctor who testified in opposition told the committee that before puberty, there are no differences that would give a physical edge.
One proponent of the bill was Idaho lawmaker Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who carried a similar bill that has been stalled out after a lawsuit there.
"If we're willing to allow one male biological athlete to take the spot of girls, we are systematically not just limiting that one young lady's spot, but we are changing the dynamic of everyone on the team, those who might be the standout athletes might no longer be able to do that."
Opponents said the bill discriminates on the basis of sex, in violation of both the state and U.S. constitutions.
Fuller dismissed concerns that both a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year upholding a decision affirming transgender rights and an executive order from President Biden saying it would enforce all legal protections for transgender people would create legal issues for the bill. The legislative program manager for ACLU Montana said the legislation, if passed, would lead to Montana being sued.
"We will be facing litigation not just from private parties, but also from the federal government," said Laurel Hesse with the ACLU of Montana.
SK Rossi, lobbying on behalf of the cities of Bozeman and Missoula, said the bill would send the message that Montana is not a welcoming place, harming businesses, universities and more.
"It negatively impacts the fabric of our communities," Rossi said.
Rossi also questioned the focus on winning in sports, not participation.
"I competed at all levels, from the age of 4 to college competitively, and still have never heard that the point is to win. I heard the point was to build community, to have friends, to have a sense of ... sportsmanship and to learn to operate as a community, as a team, and I think that's how it should be," Rossi said.
Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman who competed as a wrestler, said participating in sports was a big part of becoming the adult she is today.
"In my high school wrestling room, there was a sign above the door that read 'Every day, I leave this room, a better wrestler and a better person than when I entered.' And every day we'd slap the sign as an acknowledgment of the hard work we put in and why we put in. My coach would say 'You don't think you become a better wrestler? Stay behind, do some drills. If you don't think you've become a better person? Stay behind, we'll talk about, we'll work through whatever it is you need to work through. And that's the power of sports. That's what sticks with me," Zephyr said.
Fuller told the committee that HB 427 to limit gender-affirming surgeries was also meant to protect children from making decisions they were too young to understand the full effects of. Doctors have testified previously and again Wednesday said that procedures banned in the bill are not best medical practices and not performed in Montana now.
Other opponents again raised legal concerns about the legislation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action on the bills.