By LYDIA BERGLAR
From November 26-28th, students and teachers from across the state gathered for Georgia Youth Assembly in Atlanta where three Dade County High School (DCHS) students presented a bill intended to provide firm definitions of sex and gender, ensuring that all Georgia public schools are operating from the same definitions. These students, Emma Hartline, Emma Vandagriff, and Savannah Wolfe, articulately and passionately explained the bill to the Sentinel and recapped their experience at Youth Assembly.
DCHS was one of 50 schools in Georgia selected by the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement to participate in the grant-funded project. As the lead advisor for Student Council and government teacher (as well as assistant football and track coach), John Millican stepped up to find interested students. The project particularly seeks student council members, and Hartline, Vandagriff, and Wolfe are all DCHS Student Council at-large members.
With multiple family members involved in local and state politics, Hartline herself is interested in a career in politics. Vandagriff thought that Youth Assembly would be a valuable experience, and Wolfe is considering a career in law, so all three students were interested when Millican approached them about Youth Assembly.
Millican said, “My goal was for them to get actual experience in this so that before they graduate and we let go of their hands, they know what they want to do with their lives.”
Of the 600 bills submitted from all 50 schools, ours was one of 48 selected to be heard at Youth Assembly. Bills that pass in both the senate and house can be signed by the Youth Governor (who is elected each year at the assembly). These bills then go to the state assembly where elected senators and representatives can choose to pursue the bills further. As more than just a mock simulation, the project has potential to impact Georgia law.
The Youth Assembly House of Representatives is made up of 450 students (mostly freshmen and sophomores) which is where Vandagriff and Wolfe spent their time. Hartline was with the 100 students in the Youth Assembly Senate, made up mostly of juniors and seniors.
In Wolfe’s words, “Our bill is to clarify the distinction between biological sex and gender in Georgia public schools. It’s to protect men and women in sports and in general.” Hartline added, “It used to be that gender and biological sex meant the same thing, but now that’s not socially acceptable.” See the end of this article to read the bill (before amendments) in its entirety.
The girls explained that when enacting Title IX laws, schools are operating from differing understandings of both “sex” and “gender” due to a lack of clear definitions.
When preparing the bill (Senate Bill 18), the three students researched human anatomy and the skeletal structure of males and females and researched the Lia Thomas and Riley Gaines issue. As athletes and young women themselves, all three are concerned about how legislature (or lack thereof) could impact their sports, changing rooms, and bathrooms.
At Youth Assembly, they attended training sessions, met with their fellow senators and representatives, attended committee meetings, and presented in session.
Hartline presented the bill in senate committee and normal senate, and Wolfe presented it in house committee and normal house. It passed in the first three sessions before failing with a 132-182 vote in normal house.
The students approved several amendments that improved the language of the bill, but they vetoed others that would have changed the essence of the bill. For example, Hartline vetoed an amendment that would have allowed fully-transitioned students to compete in sports that align with their new gender.
The girls explained that even after sex reassignment operations (also called “gender-affirming surgery”) and hormone therapy, once-male or once-female bodies have already developed differently and skeletal structures remain as they were at birth. In Hartline’s words, “If a male and a female burned completely in a house fire, all you’re going to see is the bone structure of a male and a female, regardless of what surgeries they’d had or any hormone treatment.”
As to why the bill failed, Wolfe said, “I was prepared to answer questions about the bill, but I think students got so stuck on the bathroom issue. Many of their questions weren’t relevant to our bill. They kept asking the same question but rewording it.” Hartine added, “They had a lot of opinion questions.”
At Youth Assembly, the DCHS students spoke with transgender students, nearly all of whom supported their bill. Wolfe noted that these trans students were very open-minded and respectful. She said, “I feel like they do understand both sides. They think it’s good to have clear definitions.”
Wolfe, Hartline, and Vandagriff speculated that trans students were open-minded because they are more educated on these subjects than students who fell into the “trans advocate” category.
Interestingly, Senate Bill 6 which was to “ban healthcare providers from performing medical procedures to affirm a minor’s non-biological sex” passed all the way to the youth governor who then vetoed it. While trans students opposed this bill, they were open to Hartline, Wolfe, and Vandagriff’s bill.
In Millican’s words, “Our bill had enough in it to gain support from both sides of the aisle. There are only three states currently that define male and female: Montana, Kansas, and Tennessee. Georgia should be the next one.”
After amendments, the final bill defined male and female by DNA which provides only two options: XX chromosomes or XY chromosomes, regardless of hormones or physical characteristics.
The students plan to talk with Senator Moore in hopes of getting the bill into state legislation.
Overall, Youth Assembly lined up with the girl’s expectations. Vandagriff said, “I figured it would be like that, with a lot of back and forth.” Millican, however, said that his expectations were blown away. “These three young ladies are the cream of the crop. It made my heart smile. As I get older and Gen X starts to bow out and these ladies and their generation takes over, I’m not as afraid. It was a breath of fresh air to see that many of these students actually know and care and are looking at facts.”
The girls described their fellow politicians as “mature, educated people.” Hartline said, “We could sit there and talk with them for hours on end. It makes me think I’m not the only one who’s worried about the future.” Vandagriff added, “In that environment, it makes you see things differently.” Wolfe concluded, “Opportunities like this can help a lot in the way we view the world. We could see what life might be like when we get out of high school.”
“Senate Bill 18 – Purpose: Ensure clarity on the distinction between biological sex and gender in Georgia public schools, and general public, by mandating clear state definitions to prevent any confusion or evasion of the law.
“Section 1. Definition of Biological Sex: The state of Georgia shall provide an explicit definition of biological sex, which refers to the physical characteristics (Editor’s note: an amendment changed this to ‘biological characteristics’) that distinguish individuals as male or female. This definition shall be incorporated into the curriculum and educational materials in public schools to ensure that students have a precise understanding of this concept.
“Section 2. Definition of Gender: The state of Georgia shall define gender as a broader, socially and culturally constructed concept encompassing one’s self-identity, roles, and expectations. This definition will be integrated into educational materials and curriculum, promoting a comprehensive understanding of gender among students.
“Section 3. Clarity in Education: Public schools shall be mandated to enforce the distinction between biological sex and gender, emphasizing the importance of respecting and understanding diverse gender identities. This will help eliminate any confusion or misunderstanding on the subject.
“Section 4. Compliance and Enforcement: The state of Georgia shall establish mechanisms to ensure compliance with these definitions within public schools. Any attempts to evade or circumvent state law by misrepresenting these definitions will be subject to appropriate enforcement and penalties. (Editor’s note: an amendment outlined the penalties.)
“Section 5. By passing this bill, the Georgia State Assembly will provide students with a clear and accurate definition (provided by the state) of biological sex and gender, contributing to a more inclusive and informed educational environment while upholding the rule of law.
“Section 6. With the passing of this law, schools must separate bathrooms, locker rooms, sports, and all gender-based amenities via biological sex instead of gender. (Editor’s note: An amendment allowed that fully-transitioned students could use bathrooms that aligned with their new gender.)”