Max Varney, right, listens to other speakers at a public hearing after voicing opposition to a proposed "Women's Bill of Rights" Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in the House chambers at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Source: AP Photo/John Raby

A West Virginia 'Women's Bill of Rights' is an Effort to Suppress Transgender People, Critics Say

John Raby READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Legislation in West Virginia to narrow the definitions of gender would give women no further rights and is a way for Republicans to suppress transgender people, speakers at a public hearing said Thursday.

Dozens of speakers condemned the "Women's Bill of Rights" while a handful spoke in favor of it during the 45-minute hearing in the House chambers at the state Capitol.

The legislation says that "equal" does not mean "same" or "identical" with respect to equality of the sexes. It would define in state statues and official public policies that a person's sex is determined at birth and that gender equity terms may not be substituted. It also would establish that certain single-sex environments, such as athletics, locker rooms and bathrooms, are not discriminatory.

Marshall University student Max Varney 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 unjust. And it is disgusting.

"Why am I not supposed to be considered a person too?" Varney continued. "I am here today to show you that trans people in West Virginia are real. I am real. I exist. And I deserve to be treated with humanity."

Fairness West Virginia, the state's only LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, said the bill does nothing to support women and among other things would ban transgender people from using government building restrooms that align with their gender identity.

The legislation is pending in the GOP-supermajority House of Delegates. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice strongly backed the bill at a gathering shortly before its introduction last month. Other states have seen similar moves: Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order on the narrow definitions of sex in August.

Attending both events was former Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who criticized an NCAA decision allowing 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 how transgender people can use bathrooms, officials have struggled to understand how they will be implemented.

Despite its broad "Bill of Rights" premise, the measure doesn't address issues such as reproductive care, abortion, or affordable childcare. One lawmaker's attempt to insert an equal pay clause was rejected when a House committee chairman ruled that it wasn't pertinent to the bill, which is alternatively titled: "The West Virginia Act to Define Sex-Based Terms Used in State Law, Help Protect Single Sex Spaces, and Ensure the Accuracy of Public Data Collection."

Supporter Nila Thomson said at the House Judiciary Committee's public hearing that the bill "guarantees my rights to safety, privacy and protection. I'm so grateful you took the initiative to put forth this bill."

But Mollie Kennedy, the community outreach director for the American Civil Liberties Union's West Virginia chapter, called it a "bigoted bill."

"We don't need a women's bill of rights to know how this legislature feels about women," she said. "It is appalling and offensive."

Another bill that would prohibit transgender students from using the school restroom that aligns with their gender identity advanced through the House Education Committee last month. That bill has not been taken up by the judiciary committee.

Justice, a Republican, last year signed a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, joining more than a dozen states that have enacted laws restricting or outlawing medically supported treatments for transgender youth.

Court challenges are likely.

In 2020, the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Virginia school board's transgender bathroom ban was unconstitutional. West Virginia is in the 4th Circuit's jurisdiction.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a 12-year-old transgender girl in West Virginia to continue competing on her middle 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.

by John Raby

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