Ember Zelch loves the view from behind home plate.
“I’m a catcher,” says the 17-year-old. “So I love the adrenaline rush and everything involved. I love the crowds cheering and the team camaraderie. We’re there for each other. Everyone just treats me like I’m me.”
Ember is currently the only transgender girl approved by the Ohio High School Athletics Association to compete in high school sports.
But this year, on the first day of LGBTQ+ Pride month, a piece of anti-trans legislation finally reached the Zelch family’s doorstep, seriously threatening the last season of Ember’s high school softball career — along with her hopes of a collegiate career in Ohio.
If passed by the Ohio Senate, the Save Women’s Sports Act would ban trans athletes from competition and allow anyone to openly question any student-athlete’s gender, subjecting them to invasive medical testing and genital examinations in order to compete.
Now Ember and her mom, Minna, are speaking out in hopes that sharing her story might change the political tide for transgender athletes in Ohio.
“All I can think about is the kids beneath me,” Ember says. “If this is passed, they won’t have a sport anymore. Knowing how much it has helped me, and knowing how hard it’s been for me not getting [to play]when I wanted to… Why should that be taken away?”
What is the Save Women’s Sports Act?
On June 1, Ohio joined the fray when the House of Representatives passed the Save Women’s Sports Act during a late-night session.
Originally introduced as House Bill 61, Rep. Jena Powell (R-Arcanum) re-introduced the ban as a last-minute amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation. The bill’s current text, as passed by the Ohio House, describes three specific methods of gender policing student-athletes:
When a student-athlete’s gender is questioned by a teacher, coach, parent, peer — or even a stranger — section C of HB 151 requires them to submit a physician’s statement detailing their testosterone levels, physical descriptions of their internal and external genitalia, and genetic blood testing to determine their chromosomal makeup.
If student-athletes do not consent to the required testing, they could be banned from competing at any school, state university, private college or interscholastic sports body in the state.
Doctors and experts oppose the bill
Ohio House Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin) — who is both a pediatrician and a professor of clinical medicine at the Ohio State University — voted against the bill.
“It’s a dangerous bill that will harm kids,” Liston said during a virtual press call in June. “[It’s] an invasion of bodily autonomy. Children should not have to do this to prove their gender to strangers in order to play sports.”
Dr. Anita Somani — a practicing OBGYN in Columbus with more than 30 years experience — also appeared on the call.
“I don’t believe this is a bill about fairness in sports,” she said. “The exam itself can create trauma. It can be triggering. I have been doing this all my life, and I am appalled.”
Summit County child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Patricia Goetz also testified to the physical, emotional and psychological trauma the bill could inflict on transgender and cisgender athletes alike.
“Sports have a very positive effect on girls’ self esteem,” she said. “Psychologically, it will be very damaging.”
After national backlash against the genital inspections included in the bill, Ohio State Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) called the practice “not necessary.”
“It’s not going to happen,” he said on June 16, indicating that the Senate would hold hearings on HB 151 this fall, likely during the reliably chaotic lame duck session.
Gender policing in sports has a long, traumatic history
Because sex characteristics like testosterone levels, genitalia and genetic makeup aren’t the same for all people, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth, “verifying” a person’s gender can be complicated and traumatizing.
Intersex people, who might be born with any combination of different sex characteristics or sex chromosomes, make up about 2% of the general population, and have been actively targeted in sports for nearly a century.
Cisgender women, who were assigned female at birth, have also been the targets of gender policing tactics — particularly if they are also Black or people of color.
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, American track and field champion Helen Stephens experienced constant misgendering and harassment in media reports. As a result of such public speculation, she was subjected to the Olympics’ first genital exams.
In 2020, the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that South African mid-distance runner and Olympic champion Caster Semenya — who has naturally high testosterone levels — would have to lower her natural testosterone levels via medication in order to compete, despite unwanted side effects.
Other Black female athletes and athletes of color — including Dutee Chand, Christine Mboma, Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui — have been banned from competing as a direct result of the decision.
Ohio High School Athletics Association (OHSAA) does not support the bill
The Ohio High School Athletics Association (OHSAA) — which oversees about 400,000 student-athletes each year across the state — already has rules in place to accommodate transgender athletes competing at the high school level.
Since 2015, just 13 transgender girls have competed in OHSAA sports.
Of those 13, only three have competed at the high school level.
This year, Ember is the only trans athlete competing in girls sports, and was only approved to compete against other girls in her age group after undergoing two years of hormone replacement therapy and working with her parents and doctors to provide paperwork documenting her medications and hormone levels over time.
The OHSAA does not support the Save Women’s Sports Act, and provided The Buckeye Flame with this written statement via executive director Doug Ute:
“The Ohio High School Athletic Association does not support the amendment to HB151 addressing the trans sports ban (HB 61). We would like to note that HB 61 has been sitting idle now for over one full calendar year. The OHSAA firmly believes that our current transgender policy is more than effective in protecting the integrity of girls sports, while also providing participation opportunities for the highly vulnerable group of transgender athletes.”
Currently, OHSAA’s policy allows trans boys and trans masculine people to compete in boys’ sports at any time, so long as they are currently receiving gender affirming hormone treatment.
For trans girls and trans feminine athletes, the standards for competing are far more specific — requiring a minimum of one year of gender affirming hormone therapy, or proof by way of “sound medical evidence” that the athlete does not possess a “physical or physiological advantage” over athletes competing in the same age group.
“If you lined her up with her other teammates, you would have no idea [who is trans],” Minna says. “Especially if they have access to blockers and hormones, [trans athletes]are not going to develop those characteristics that will give them an advantage. The irony is that they want to take that away too, which makes it impossible to play if you don’t have the medical care that you need.”
“It’s a process for the school, the parents, the kid and their doctors. Ember had to have additional blood work done,” Minna adds. “She had just been approved when we found out about [House Bill 151].”
Sports are a vital outlet for LGBTQ+ youth
Quinn Sullivan is a recent graduate of Beaver Local School District in Columbiana County, Ohio.
During his standout swim career, he qualified for districts competing against girls, then again competing against boys after he began to socially and medically transition.
“Ever since I could remember, I wanted to swim,” Quinn says. “My dad’s brother lived in Florida and we would go there once a year and I would swim in the ocean. I vividly remember coming home from one of those trips and my dad sitting me down and saying, ‘You know that you can swim as a sport, right?’ That just blew my mind.”
Quinn, who is a young transgender man, says he can’t imagine his life without swimming — and the important friendships and opportunities it’s provided him.
A 2021 study by the Center for American Progress suggests that the social, emotional and psychological benefits of sports are often lifesaving for LGBTQ+ people.
LGBTQ+ athletes reported receiving higher grades and experiencing 20% fewer depressive symptoms than LGBTQ+ students who did not play sports.
For Ember, that data point rings true. Like Quinn, she says the friendship and support she’s gained playing team sports are priceless.
“Sports have been my way to get away and just relax and let out stress,” Ember says. “You create such amazing friendships. Especially for queer kids, that’s really important.”
‘If we don’t, then who will?’
Ember lives in a small town, and attends a small school.
“It is a rather conservative community, so we had many conversations about what this means to us as a family,” her mom says. “In the end, we left it up to the kids. We talked to them separately and they both pretty much said, ‘We’re scared, but we have to say something. Because if we don’t, then who will?’”
Last year, Ember received a Vax-2-School Scholarship through a drawing conducted by the State of Ohio, granting her a $10,000 scholarship to any college in the state.
But if she can’t play softball, Ember doesn’t plan to stick around.
“That’s how important this is to me,” Ember says, noting that the scholarship can be transferred to her younger sibling should she need to leave the state in order to compete — or in order to receive gender affirming healthcare.
“With House Bill 454 and House Bill 616, my kid has spent her entire high school career basically defending her right to exist,” Minna. “I think that’s what infuriates me the most. No one should have to do that. I would much rather she only had to worry about her grades.”
Until the Ohio Senate votes on the legislation, Ember plans to play her senior season — and enjoy every second of the sport she loves.
To other transgender athletes, she has this say: “Just keep being yourself. Keep showing people that you are human, and that you deserve the same rights as any other human being.” 🔥
- To learn more about how to protect student-athletes from the effects of Ohio House Bill 151, visit Equality Ohio.