Project Summary:

In 2023, a fifth of the country’s state-level bills impacting the LGBTQ+ community were filed in Texas, according to a Human Rights Campaign analysis. Equality Texas tracked a record 141 such bills this year up from just 12 in 2015. Some policies passed and several others progressed substantially in the most recent legislative session. KXAN’s team of journalists – many LGBTQ+ staff members with unique, developed and inside perspectives providing nuance to our fair, rigorous and balanced reporting standards – produced multimedia stories like this one for the “OutLaw” project, taking an in-depth look at what this trend could mean for Texas’ future.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sports and athletics have always been a central part of Mack Beggs’ life. 

“I did dance competitively — ballet, tap [and] modern,” he said. “I did baseball, tee ball, soccer, pole vault, volleyball — like everything.”

If that wasn’t enough, he was interested in MMA fighting as a teenager. He wanted to take classes, but one hot day at Trinity High in Euless, Texas, he found himself doing something not entirely different.

“I just came home one day, and I saw my grandmother. I was just completely drenched in sweat. And she looked at me like, ‘What have you been doing all day? Have you like run (home) from school?’ I was like, ‘No, I decided to join wrestling,’” Beggs recalled. 

And it was a good fit. Beggs went on to win state championships and compete in college. But with big wins came a commensurate amount of controversy. 

Beggs said growing up, he always felt a little different. After years of therapy with a gender therapist, he decided to start transitioning to become male.

“I was already presenting really masculine,” he said. “I think I was 16 when I started taking actual testosterone.”

        In this Feb. 18, 2017, file photo, Euless Trinity's Mack Beggs is announced as the winner of a semifinal match during the finals of the UIL Region 2-6A wrestling tournament at Allen High School in Allen, Texas. (Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News via AP, File)

In this Feb. 18, 2017, file photo, Euless Trinity’s Mack Beggs is announced as the winner of a semifinal match during the finals of the UIL Region 2-6A wrestling tournament at Allen High School in Allen, Texas. (Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News via AP, File)

It wasn’t until early 2022 that a Texas law went into effect requiring K-12 student-athletes to play on teams that corresponded with the sex listed on their birth certificate. But still, a University Interscholastic League policy when Mack was in high school in 2017 necessitated he wrestled against females even though he identified as a male. UIL oversees athletics in Texas public schools.

Beggs would have preferred to wrestle against the other boys but didn’t want to sit out. Then, in 2017, he won a state title. Many decried the win, saying he had an unfair advantage due to his use of testosterone as part of care to affirm his gender.

“At that point, I was just feeling like, you know, my haters make me stronger,” Beggs recalled. “I would just smile at the people who would (give) me the most disgusting looks.”

“I didn’t feel like I had an option to be scared. I didn’t feel like I had an option not to be strong. Because if I (was), then I might have lost myself, and I might not have been here today,” Beggs said.

Beggs went on to wrestle competitively in college for three years at Life University in Marietta, Georgia. If he were entering college in 2023 as a freshman in Texas, under a new law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, he would again have to compete on the girl’s team or not at all.  

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Beggs said. “It’s got to be hell.”

“I honestly do wish that these (trans) kids can pull the power out of themselves and the strength,” he continued. “Because I know a lot of people have given into this fight already.”

Senate Bill 15 

Abbott signed Senate Bill 15 into law on June 18. The law requires athletes at public colleges or universities to play on teams that match the sex on their birth certificate, regardless of how they identify. It also empowers people to file civil lawsuits against a public college or university if there are grounds to believe the university violated the law. Further, it says a woman may play on a men’s team if there is no female equivalent for a specific sport.

“Senate Bill 15 comes down to one thing: fairness,” said Texas Sen. Mayes Middleton, R- Galveston, who authored the bill.

“As a legislature, we have taken the first step towards fair competition for women already, passing protections for girls’ K-12 sports. Now it is time to take the next step, so fairness for female athletes is protected at all levels, and finish the other half of the equation and protect all female sports,” Mayes said at the public hearing for the legislation in March, referring to extending the scope of the 2021 bill to college athletes.

“Senate Bill 15 protects fairness in women’s college sports by ensuring men don’t cheat women out of victories, steal athletic records from female athletes, and put women’s athletic scholarships unfairly at risk. Generations of women have fought for the opportunity to compete. You cannot have fair competition when women are forced to compete against men in college sports. Everyone gets to play sports under this bill, you just have to play according to your God-given sex.”

Middleton wrote in a statement to KXAN

Eleven-time NCAA All-American swimmer Jeri Shanteau was a strong advocate of SB 15.

        Eleven-time NCAA All-American swimmer Jeri Shanteau was a strong advocate of Senate Bill 15 (Photo Courtesy Jeri Shanteau).

Eleven-time NCAA All-American swimmer Jeri Shanteau was a strong advocate of Senate Bill 15 (Photo Courtesy Jeri Shanteau).

“If we take away the experience of winning when you’re young, it is very difficult to persevere through those tough times. So if we’re not careful and protecting from a young age all the way through professional sports, we will not have female sports,” Shanteau said. 

An example Shanteau and other advocates point to is transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas. She attended Westlake High School and later became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship in 2022.

“If we don’t do the small things right now, and really protect this and protect the female category of sport, I don’t know where we’re going to be in 12 years or 22 years. I don’t want my grandchildren (or) my daughter to not have these opportunities that I had. We need to protect them,” Shanteau added.

As of June 2023, there were no reports of NCAA transgender athletes competing in Texas, per KXAN reporting. A researcher who studies the effects of hormones on athletes told the New York Times in 2022 that fewer than 50 transgender women compete in U.S. college sports at any given time. The LGBTQ+ sports publication Out Sports published an article in April, saying it knew of only 36 transgender athletes, including Mack Beggs, who were out about their gender identity while competing at a collegiate level. 

KXAN reached out to several public Texas universities’ athletic departments to determine how they were going to implement the rules of SB 15. Many declined to comment or didn’t respond at all. 

A wave of laws 

Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed the first state law barring transgender women and girls from playing on female teams in 2020. Since then, 23 other states, including Texas, have passed similar legislation related to K-12 student athletes, college athletes or both.

This map shows which states have transgender sports restrictions, as of Nov. 13, 2023. (Source: Movement Advancement Project. KXAN Interactive/Christopher Adams)

The path to codifying these laws has not been easy for some states. A federal appeals court in August upheld a preliminary injunction against Idaho’s law, according to AP

Additionally, after former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law prohibiting transgender females from playing on female teams from kindergarten through college, a federal judge in July blocked the law to allow a lawsuit to process. Two transgender girls filed that lawsuit, arguing it violates the federal Title IX rules, according to reports.

Title IX future

The Biden Administration released in April a proposal for an interpretation of Title IX — a more than half-century-old rule that increased educational opportunities free from sex discrimination — that would extend protections to transgender people. 

“Every student should be able to have the full experience of attending school in America, including participating in athletics, free from discrimination. Being on a sports team is an important part of the school experience for students of all ages,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in an April press release.

If the administration finalizes the interpretation, those who enforce categorial transgender bans will violate Title IX. Still, the proposed rule does recognize that a school may want to limit a transgender athlete’s participation in a sport if the inclusion impedes on the fairness of the competition. In those instances, “The proposed rule would provide schools with a framework for developing eligibility criteria that protects students from being denied equal athletic opportunity while giving schools the flexibility to develop their own participation policies,” according to the Department of Education. 

Professor of Law at Texas A&M University Rachel Moran, who’s an expert in educational law and policy, explained the Biden Administration’s argument.

“If you’re being excluded — just because of a categorical label — when you can meet all the requirements of the team, and don’t somehow disrupt the fairness of the competition, you’re competing on a fair footing with everyone else and you meet the standards, then you’re being discriminated against as an individual on the basis of that trait. That’s really the key here,” Moran said.

“Categorical bans say, ‘We’re going to treat you as a member of a group and just assume that that membership defines you. We’re not going to treat you as an individual who has unusual abilities in a sport,’” she continued. “That’s the issue.” 

When the Department of Education announced the guideline proposal, it received more than 150,000 public comments either for or against the new guidelines. In May, the Department said it would release a final version of the new Title IX guidelines in Oct. 2023. Because of a “historic” number of comments, the Department of Education had to delay the rulemaking.

At the end of Oct. 2023, KXAN reached out to the Department and a spokesperson said the following:

“The Biden-Harris Administration remains resolute in our commitment to support all students and ensure they receive a quality education free from discrimination. The notice of proposed rulemaking for the upcoming regulations on Title IX of the Education amendments of 1972 received a historic number of comments, and the Department is working overtime to ensure that each one is thoroughly read and carefully considered. We are utilizing every resource at our disposal to complete this rulemaking process as soon as is practicable. In the meantime, we continue to enforce Title IX consistent with existing law that protects students on the basis of sex, including LGBTQI+ students.”

 U.S. Education Department spokesperson

Moran said if the new Title IX guidelines go into effect, they will be at odds with the states that have passed legislation that categorically ban transgender athletes from participating in teams they identify with. 

“The federal standards are the ones that govern and states have to comply with these as baselines for nondiscrimination,” she said. “I  think that you may see even more activity once these bans go into effect, these guidelines are in place, and there’s clear interpretation, that at a federal level, this is seen as discriminatory.”

NCAA rule change

In the Title IX guidelines proposal, the Department of Education recognized the NCAA’s 2022 adoption of a “sport-by-sport approach” on transgender participation. 

University of Pennsylvania athlete Lia Thomas prepares for the 500 meter freestyle at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, March 17, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

University of Pennsylvania athlete Lia Thomas prepares for the 500 meter freestyle at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, March 17, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Following Lia Thomas’ controversial swimming win, the NCAA changed its rules, aligning with the Olympics’ sport-specific guidelines, according to the NCAA.

“We are steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports,” said John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board, in a 2022 press release. “It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy.”

“Beginning Aug. 1, 2024, participation in NCAA sports requires transgender student-athletes to provide documentation no less than twice annually (and at least once within four weeks of competition in NCAA championships) that meets the sport-specific standard (which may include testosterone levels, mitigation timelines and other aspects of sport-governing body policies) as reviewed and approved by CSMAS. More information about the specific application of Phase Three will be provided prior to implementation.”

NCAA Board of Governors

Love of sport

Just because she was a strong advocate of SB 15 does not mean Shanteau believes transgender athletes shouldn’t have access to sports.

“They should have all the opportunities that I have,” she said. “That is, I hope that that is so clear … I think that it can enhance your life in ways you never thought and it can get you through hard times, right? So I hope that they participate in sports. I want them to and I’d like them to do so in the category that they were born in, not at what they want to identify with today.”

And though Beggs does not side with Shanteau about categorical transgender athlete bans, he agrees about the vital role sports play in a person’s life.

“I don’t think I would be the same person that I am today. And that’s not even just from sports building me — that’s from the coaches, the teammates, everything about it,” Beggs said. “Even the bad moments — the bad moments even made me stronger through resilience and being able to just go through challenges I’m dealing with in life today.”

Chief Photojournalist Todd Bynum, Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Lead Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Digital Executive Producer Andrew Schnitker, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Photojournalist Andy Way and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.