A South African sportswriter’s influence on anti-transgender legislation

By: - June 23, 2021 5:00 am
A transgender woman hold a transgender pride flag at a rally for LGBTQ rights in New York. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images.)

A transgender woman hold a transgender pride flag at a rally for LGBTQ rights in New York. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images.)

In the last six years, Tennessee has passed more than 70 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation. This year the state surpassed nearly every other in the country, becoming the first to require businesses and government buildings to post a sign if they let transgender people use bathrooms.

Previous Lookout reporting covered the far-right and conservative groups that created model legislation, polled and fundraised for these bills and trained legislators with anti-trans propaganda, but at least one Tennessee senator says he based his sponsorship on a sports writer’s tweets. Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon,  said in a email he sponsored and voted for SB0228 after reading Ross Tucker’s tweets about transgender athletes online.

Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“My thoughts on the issues raised by allowing trans athletes to compete in sports against competitors who do not share their biological sex were informed by a series of tweets from Ross Tucker,” Stevens said in his email statement. 

Stevens said in a later email statement he doesn’t know how he came across Tucker’s tweets. Tucker, a South African sports writer, penned a thread based on his op-ed in the Daily Maverick, a South African newspaper. The thread states that “trans women who have suppressed [testosterone] lose only small amounts of muscle mass [and] strength.” Tucker also says that people who favor inclusion of trans athletes despite “contradictory evidence… don’t care about fairness and safety of females.”

Although no openly transgender athletes have competed in the Olympics, current rules require that testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per liter of blood for at least 12 months prior to her first competition, according to WBUR. This year, as many as nine trans athletes may compete in the Tokyo Olympics. 

Barbara Simon, head of news and campaigns for GLAAD Media, says Tucker’s November 2020 tweet thread contains little fact and that there’s no evidence transgender people dominate sports. Simon also says it’s important to remember that Tennessee’s bills don’t target adult athletes, but ban school children from playing sports on the correct team. Despite Republicans’ claims about testosterone levels, Governor Bill Lee signed into law a bill that bans gender affirming and life-saving health care for minors. Puberty blockers are reversible, and can lower sex hormone levels for trans children in adulthood. Lee signed the bill despite multiple medical organizations urging him not to.

“The tweet thread seems to claim there’s no evidence to guide a decision about trans inclusion, but that is just demonstrably untrue,” Simon said in an email. “The Olympics, the NCAA, dozens of states, athletic governing bodies, all have studied this and have had policies in place for years to include transgender participation.”

Aside from inspiring discriminatory bills, Tucker also consults for top sports brands like Adidas.

Everyone deserves to play sport regardless of gender identity,” an Adidas spokesperson said via email.

Tucker and his podcast, Science of Sport, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Adidas did not sign the Human Rights Campaign’s open letter oppsing discrimination, although competitor Nike did.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, has called Gov. Bill Lee's cancellation of unemployment benefits while giving money to businesses an "immoral double standard."(Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, says of anti-LGBTQ legislation: “This is not where we need to be spending our time.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

Simon also says lawmakers who vote on bills that affect people’s lives should do more than read tweets. They should talk to medical experts in the field, transgender families and constituents, and get a sense of how these laws could hurt LGBTQ+ community members. Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, agrees. She says there hasn’t been a single instance in Tennessee in which trans athletes posed a problem or threat, and that she personally tries to understand how each bill she votes on will impact people before making a decision.

“We have so much work to do here in Tennessee and this is not where we should spend our time,” Campbell says of discriminatory legislation, which is set to cost the state millions in lost business and conventions. 

Campbell also cautions that because conservative nonprofits helped legislators write these bills, it’s likely Stevens would have supported his party’s agenda without the tweets. She also says the bills are having a direct impact on LGTBQ+ youth in the state, and knows of at least one child suffering deeply because of state politics. 

One Davidson County mother who wished not to be named to protect her son’s privacy said her son is trangender and was recently hospitalized for self-harm. The 14-year old told his mother he had created two plans to take his own life, which she says could have easily been acted upon in their household. This prompted her to make sure those situations were eliminated in their home, but that discriminatory legislation and bullying continues to affect her son.

“They’re telling trans people what they can and cannot do with their bodies,” she says. “They are also taking away the ability for parents to make informed medical decisions for our children.”

She also wrote to Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, concerned about anti-trans legislation that would affect her child. In her email she mentioned that the sports ban was very invasive, and that criminalizing healthcare for trans youth is dangerous.

Ragan replied back alleging the mother was concerned about a bill that “forces school districts to make accommodations for people who do not want to share space with transgender people,” yet those words and phrases never appeared in the original message. In subsequent emails, she reminded Ragan that segregationists in the 60s often didn’t want to “share space” with Black students either.

By signing a bill that stops my son from receiving his hormone therapy, you are also signing his death certificate,” her email read.

So far, no Republican legislator the Lookout reached out to has indicated they met in person or spoken extensively with any transgender constituent or their families. Stevens did not respond to questions about whether a youth’s suicidal ideations changed his mind about Tucker, his tweets, or anti-trans legislation.


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Lonnie Lee Hood
Lonnie Lee Hood

Lonnie Lee Hood is a queer Nashville-based writer covering justice, LGBTQ issues and more. They are an amateur roller-skater and live with their hedgehog, Noodle, and three-legged cat, Tom. They are writing a debut novel and have published poetry and sci-fi/fantasy short stories.