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LGBTQ Advocates Sue Tennessee Over Anti-Trans Sports Law

Trans teen Luc Esquivel is unable to try out for his school's boys' golf team.

Luc Esquivel at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee (photo by Shawn Poynter/ACLU)

LGBTQ advocates filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking to overturn Tennessee’s anti-trans sports ban, which they say violates the constitutional rights of a trans high school athlete in the state.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee and the pro-LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal on behalf of a freshman student, Luc Esquivel, in the state who claims in the suit that the law prevents him from trying out for the boys’ golf team at his school.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee approved SB 228 earlier this year, which requires public middle and high school students to play sports based on the sex listed on their original birth certificates, something supporters of the legislation claim is necessary to preserve teams composed solely of cisgender women and girls.

“SB 228 was passed not to protect female athletes but to marginalize transgender people. The law amounts to a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group, which is an impermissible government purpose and fails any level of equal protection scrutiny,” the lawsuit states, referring to the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Attorneys for the group are asking a federal judge in the state to declare the law unconstitutional as well as in violation of Title IX, a federal law that bars gender discrimination in education. They name a number of state officials as defendants in the suit, including Lee.

CNN has reached out to Lee’s office for comment on the lawsuit.

Thursday’s lawsuit is the latest legal challenge brought in Tennessee this year by LGBTQ advocates seeking to throw out laws that they say discriminate against transgender people. In early August, the Human Rights Campaign sued the state in an effort to block enforcement of a new law it says will prevent trans people from using bathrooms and other facilities at public schools consistent with their gender identity.

In July, a federal judge temporarily blocked West Virginia’s enforcement of a similar anti-trans sports ban in a suit filed by Lambda Legal and the ACLU. In that case, the judge said he had “been provided with scant evidence that this law addresses any problem at all, let alone an important problem.”

Leslie Cooper, the deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ and HIV Project, said in a statement that Thursday’s suit “is the ACLU’s fifth challenge to an anti-trans law that has passed this year,” adding that “there is no reason, apart from the legislature’s desire to express its disapproval of transgender people, to keep (the plaintiff) from playing on the boys’ golf team.”

The Biden administration’s Education Department issued guidance earlier this year that Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a reversal of the Trump administration’s stance that gay and transgender students are not protected by the law.

The new lawsuit comes on the heels of a record-setting year for anti-trans legislation, with 10 states enacting anti-trans sports bans, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

This summer, a federal judge temporarily blocked a different anti-trans bathroom law in Tennessee. That legislation would require businesses in the state that have gender-inclusive bathroom policies to post signs indicating that they allow transgender or other nonbinary people to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, something LGBTQ advocates say is “offensive and humiliating” for members of the community and could lead to harassment for trans people and the businesses.

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