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DeSantis dives into transgender swimmer debate

Ron DeSantis talks to reporters after the rally
Ron DeSantis talks to reporters after the rally

Gov. Ron DeSantis waded further into gender politics Tuesday, issuing a proclamation that said a swimmer from Sarasota is the nation’s best “female” in the 500-meter freestyle after she finished second last week to a transgender athlete at the NCAA championship.

DeSantis’ proclamation said University of Virginia swimmer Emma Weyant is “the rightful winner” of the race. The proclamation was sent out with an accompanying tweet that the “NCAA is destroying opportunities for women, making a mockery of its championships.”

During an appearance at a school in Wesley Chapel, DeSantis discussed the proclamation after being asked about a planned walkout by Walt Disney World employees over a perceived failure by Disney executives to lobby against a fiercely debated bill that restricts instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools — what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“If you look at what the NCAA has done, by allowing basically men to compete in women's athletics, in this case, the swimming, you had the number one woman who finished was from Sarasota, Emma Weyant, won the silver medal,” DeSantis said.

“She's been an absolute superstar, her whole career, she trains, I mean, to compete at that level is very, very difficult,” DeSantis continued. “You don't just roll out of bed and do it. That takes grit, that takes determination. And she's been an absolute superstar. And she had the fastest time of any woman in college athletics.”

Representatives of the NCAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Weyant, who took the silver medal in the 400 individual medley last summer in the Tokyo Olympics, finished second in the 500-meter freestyle Thursday at the NCAA championship at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta. She finished with a time of 4:34.99 to University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas’ time of 4:33.24.

Weyant clasped hands with Thomas in the water at the end of the race but has otherwise been quiet on the issue, which has drawn protests from other Olympians and political conservatives.

With the win, Thomas is the first known transgender athlete to win the NCAA swimming championship.

Florida lawmakers and DeSantis last year approved what was dubbed the “Fairness In Women’s Sports Act,” which prevents transgender females from participating on girls’ and women’s high-school and college sports teams.

The measure restricts female athletes’ eligibility for sports teams to the “biological sex” on their birth certificates issued “at or near the time of the student’s birth.”

Under the measure, students who contend they are “deprived of an athletic opportunity” because of violations of the law will be able to sue their schools or colleges. The law also allows colleges and universities to file lawsuits “against the governmental entity, licensing or accrediting organization, or athletic association or organization” if they suffer “direct or indirect harm” related to violations of the law.

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a teenage Broward County soccer player contends the measure is unconstitutionally discriminatory and violates a federal law, known as Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools or education programs that receive federal money.

The outcome of the Broward lawsuit may depend on the verdict in a related legal battle in St. Johns County, a judge has ruled. In that case, a federal appeals court is deciding whether a transgender student should have been allowed to use the boy’s high school bathroom.

A policy by USA Swimming requires trans athletes to undergo three years of hormone replacement therapy before competing, a timeline that the NCAA didn’t follow for Thomas, who is reportedly about 2½ years into the process.

DeSantis, who has warned business leaders of following a “woke” ideology, said Tuesday “we need to stop allowing organizations like the NCAA to perpetuate frauds on the public.”

“Now, the NCAA is basically taking efforts to destroy women's athletics,” DeSantis said. “They're trying to undermine the integrity of the competition, and they're crowning somebody else, the woman's champion, and we think that's wrong.”

University of Texas swimmer Erica Sullivan, who finished third to Thomas in the NCAA contest, wrote an opinion piece last week for Newsweek saying that among all the ongoing global issues, “in the U.S., we are wasting resources and finding ourselves divided over a question that should have a simple answer.”

“Many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Lia being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women's sports,’” Sullivan wrote. “As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women's sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis said he will “relatively soon” sign the measure (HB 1557) that restricts instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.

The measure would prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. For higher grades, the bill would prevent such instruction if it is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate as determined by state academic standards.

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida