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On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, trans athletes are still fighting to play

Eighteen states have enacted laws or created statewide rules that ban or limit transgender athletes from participating in sports.

On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which banned discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities that receive federal funding, trans athletes are fighting for the same level of protection.

Kirin Clawson, 9, loves to collect crystals, perfect her face painting skills, and play sports.

"I did play volleyball, soccer and I want to play basketball," Kirin told NBC's Hallie Jackson. "I don't want to win any trophies for it, though."

When asked what playing sports is all about, Kirin says it's simple:

"Having fun with your friends."

Kirin, who lives in Indiana and is trans, can't play sports with girls her age, though. Next week, her home state will join a growing list of states banning trans students from playing on teams that align with their gender identity.

"It's tough," Beth, Kirin's mom, said. "It's hard to do everything that you can to support your child and then have lawmakers come in, who don't know anything, and say that you're doing the wrong thing for your child and your child, my child, is going to harm other children. It's just really hard."

Currently, 18 states have banned or severely limited transgender girls and women from playing on teams that align with their gender identity. Many of the states have enacted these laws despite very few or no trans girls playing on girls' sports teams.

"(There) hasn’t been a single instance in Louisiana of a trans girl participating in sports,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said during a news conference in June after the state's Republican-controlled Legislature passed the so-called Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which requires schools in Louisiana to “designate intercollegiate and interscholastic athletic teams according to the biological sex of the team members.” 

"It's very personal," Nathaniel, Kirin's dad, said. "Because when we look at the number of folks that this impacts — lawmakers are attacking one of the smallest minorities that we have."

For 50 years, Title IX has protected girls and women from being discriminated against in most schools. Now, those same protections are being debated as legislatures argue for and against the federal right for trans students to participate in school sports.

"It's very sad that Title IX has kind of been warped to include biological males when it should be protecting biological females," Chelsea Mitchell, one of four student-athletes suing the Connecticut Association of schools for allowing trans girl athletes for participating in girls' sports. The case was dismissed and the students are now appealing, arguing that the state violated their Title IX protections.

"Everyone deserves the opportunity to compete," Mitchell added. "It just needs to be done where it's most fair. And women's sports need to be kept as women's sports."

Studies have shown that trans and non-binary people are four times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their cisgender peers. One 2021 study found that gender identity acceptance by both supportive adults and peers can reduce the risk of suicide.

This week, FINA, world's swimming governing body, banned trans women from competing in women's events. Only swimmers who transitioned before 12 years of age are eligible to compete.

LGBTQ+ organizations denounced the decision, calling it "discriminatory." Professional athletes like Billie Jean King and Megan Rapinoe also condemned the ruling.

When Rapinoe heard about Kirin and her desire to play school sports with her peers, she grew emotional.

"She just wants to play with her friends," Jackson told Rapinoe in an interview via Zoom. "What's your message to her?"

"We're with you and it's like...emotional to think about," Rapinoe replied, wiping away tears. "I mean, this kid's so young. She just literally wants to play with her friends."

Kirin has her own message, too:

"Never stop being you, that's it," she said. "Never stop being you."