NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Despite the possibility that it could cost the state $2 billion in federal funding, Tennessee Senate Republicans passed a bill Monday that would define sex in state code as a person’s anatomy at birth.
“I mean, if defining sex, as it has traditionally meant for years in the dictionary, costs us federal funds. There’s something wrong with Washington DC,” said bill sponsor Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield).
Roberts says his bill simply moves the definition of “sex” from a section of the Tennessee code relating to school facilities to apply to the rest of state law.
“It’s not a novel definition. It’s not a new definition,” Roberts said on the Senate floor Monday. “We’re not doing anything different for us to define terms when we need to in the code.”
However, the Tennessee transgender community sees it as another attack on their rights.
“I know this is gonna have a real implication. But it’s hard to predict where that real implication is going to be,” said ACLU Tennessee Transgender Justice Advocate Henry Seaton. “A whole can of worms that are unexpected and can have really horrifying and just confusing and not understandable consequences.”
Seaton and Democrats who oppose this bill also fear what impact creating a strict definition of “sex” would have on people born with blended sexual characteristics.
“I think that I don’t have an answer to that question. I believe it’s beyond the scope of the bill,” said Roberts when asked about the effects this could have on people who are intersex.
Seaton also noted that in addition to having unknown impacts on trans healthcare, official documents, and even travel, the bill could also make it illegal for him to be around children considering the language in a newly signed bill putting restrictions on drag performances.
“If we are defining biological sex in this really strict and restrictive way, that definition of ‘male or female impersonator’ can extend in a way it wouldn’t have been able to before. So, it really solidifies a path to being able to criminalize a trans person,” Seaton said.
He said while the impact on the lives of trans people is unclear, the message it sends to them is clear.
“It’s just like we continue to send this message over and over again, that’s just we don’t want to trans people in Tennessee, we don’t like trans people in Tennessee,” he said.
Sen. Roberts dismissed those concerns on the Senate floor.
“Despite things that have been said, things that have been put in the media, this doesn’t have anything to do with gender. This doesn’t have anything to do with the definition of gender. It doesn’t have anything to do with transgender. It doesn’t have anything to do with LGBTQI+ or anything. There’s a definition of ‘sex’ in the code in Title 49, and as far as I’m concerned it’s in the wrong place. That’s what I’m doing. And if anybody wants to read into it, or make it something that is not. That’s beyond my ability to answer, but that’s all I’m trying to do with this bill,” Roberts said.
The bill passed along party lines with Democrats wondering if this bill is worth the cost.
“I don’t know why on earth we would take the risk of losing $2 billion of annual federal funding in order to provide a definition that nobody really thinks needs fixing,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbo (D-Nashville).
The bill hasn’t made it to the House floor as it is currently set to be heard in a key House committee after they take up the Governor’s budget.