US conservatives fire opening salvo in trans sports battle

US lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday aimed at banning transgender women and girls from sports teams that match their gender identity, as Congress turned its focus on one of the most polarizing issues in American culture.

The "Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act" seeks to narrow 50-year-old civil rights protections against sex-based discrimination to recognize sex as "based solely on a person's reproductive biology and genetics at birth."

The bill -- which conservatives say aims to promote fairness while safeguarding women -- was passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives education committee, teeing off what is set to be an acrimonious debate in the full House.

"As a mother and past educator, I abhor the increasing prevalence of biological men competing in women's sports," said Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx.

Allowing trans competitors to line up against female athletes "denies equal opportunity for women," Foxx told the committee.

Democrats hit back at Foxx, arguing that that it is discriminatory and hurtful to deprive trans athletes of competition.

"I should be in chemistry class right now, but I'm here to tell you that kids like me should get to play sports with their friends," Rebekah Bruesehoff, a 16-year-old transgender hockey player, told a news conference outside the US Capitol.

The issue has divided classrooms, education authorities, women's groups and sports associations nationwide, with some districts barring transgender women and girls from competitive sport.

Opponents of inclusivity argue that trans women and girls enjoy an unfair advantage against their non-trans competitors due to generally greater muscle mass and bone density, and other physical factors that boost speed and explosive strength.

But several feminist associations and sports personalities, such as US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, are on the opposite side of the debate, and support including trans women in women's competitions.

"There are real pressing problems impacting women's and girls' sports, including sexual harassment and assault, lack of equal resources and pay inequality," said Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan.

The bill has little chance of becoming law, as it would have to be green-lit by senators in the upper chamber of Congress, which is controlled by Democrats who oppose the effort.

But it is part of a broader push by conservatives to provide a check on the promotion of transgender identity, which liberals say marginalizes and discriminates against the community.

Several Republican-led states have recently passed laws banning gender-affirming health care and treatment for teenagers.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office to combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.