This article has been updated.
Becky Pepper-Jackson started running with her mother when she was 5 years old. As she followed her mom through a park in their town of Bridgeport, W.Va., she would sing the chorus to “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon. When she forgot the lyrics, she would make up her own.
Running is a tradition in her family. Becky said she grew up cheering for her brothers at track meets, marveling at the cross-country medals hanging on the walls.
“I was always like, ‘I want to run,’” said Becky, now 11.
She had expected to start running cross-country at school in sixth grade, just like her brothers. But a new West Virginia law has barred her from the team.
Becky was welcome to try out for the boys’ team, her school principal said at a meeting in May, according to her mother — but her transgender daughter could not legally compete alongside other girls.
Becky and her mom decided to challenge the law in court.
(The middle school did not respond to a request for comment.)
On April 28, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) signed into law a bill that prohibits transgender girls and women from competing on women’s sports teams at publicly funded schools and universities. Students must join the team that reflects their “biological sex” as determined when they were born, the law says, forcing students like Becky to compete on a team antithetical to whom they know themselves to be or to sit out team sports altogether.
West Virginia’s law is part of a wave of anti-trans bills that have swept through state legislatures this year as trans rights have emerged as a major political flash point. Six other states with Republican governors — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee and Florida — passed similar bills in 2020, targeting trans athletes in schools. South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) barred transgender girls from women’s sports teams through executive order.
Republican legislators say these laws safeguard the rights of female competitors, who they say would be at a disadvantage if made to compete against transgender girls and women. An Idaho law passed last year said that transgender women have “denser, stronger bones” and “larger hearts, greater lung volume per body mass," which Republican legislators said would help boost their athletic performance.
“This is one of the bills that you can support because you want to ensure continued opportunities,” said West Virginia Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker (R). “It’s in the best interests of the state to protect women and girls and protect the opportunities for them to participate in sports.”
There is little evidence to suggest that transgender girls and women are more athletically capable than other female competitors, especially at the middle and high school levels. Across the country, Republican lawmakers have struggled to point to even “a single instance in their own state” where transgender participation in school sports has caused problems, according to a March 2021 investigation by the Associated Press.
“We’ve had years and, in some cases, decades of inclusion … and just quite simply there are no examples of trans people taking over or winning in any sort of significant numbers,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a prior interview with The Washington Post. “And there’s been zero examples of a trans girl in high school getting an athletic scholarship to compete in college.”
Trans advocates say these bills are emotionally damaging to an extremely vulnerable group of young people, already at a much higher risk of depression and suicide, said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, an LGBTQ rights group.
“By preventing a trans girl like Becky from following her friends into the sport of her choice, it only further isolates her,” he said.
Becky has grown up around Bridgeport, in a conservative region where former president Donald Trump won 67 percent of the vote in 2020. She is a straight-A student, recently winning an academic prize in math, her favorite subject.
From a very young age, Becky was clearly uncomfortable with her body, always trying to cover herself up, said Heather Jackson, Becky’s mom.
“Becky knew her true self long before she had the language to describe it,” Jackson said.
By third grade, Jackson said, her daughter decided she was ready to be herself at school, wearing dresses and asking to be called by her chosen name. Jackson prepared her daughter for the insults and questions she feared would come her way. If people aren’t accepting, she told Becky, “that doesn’t make your choices wrong. It just means they aren’t educated. They don’t understand.”
While most people immediately accepted her daughter, a few took a while to come around, Jackson said. One friend was forbidden from attending sleepovers with Becky, 9 years old at the time. This continued until Becky’s friend “put her foot down,” Jackson said.
“Her mother wanted her to invite certain people to her birthday party,” Jackson said. “And she said, ‘I will only invite them if we invite Becky.’”
When kids in Becky’s class asked about her gender identity, Jackson said, one teacher offered a simple explanation: “This is Becky, and this is what makes her happy.”
To a class of third-graders, that explanation made perfect sense, Jackson said.
When she got a little older, Jackson said, Becky joined the cheerleading team. She was “glowing” when she received her uniform, Jackson wrote in her court filing. Her daughter insisted that her mom sit in the front row of all her competitions. Becky loved competing on a team, her mom said, thriving on the sense of camaraderie and mutual trust.
She couldn’t wait to join the cross-country team when she got to middle school.
When Justice signed the bill banning transgender girls from women’s sports teams, Becky was devastated, she said. “I felt horrible because I knew then I couldn’t run with the other girls.”
Becky immediately started discussing a potential lawsuit with her mom.
“I said, ‘Okay. We have to do this,’” Becky said.
As hard as it is to be a trans kid and a mother of a trans kid, suddenly thrust into the public eye in a conservative state, Becky and Jackson agree: The potential payoff makes it all worth it.
“She’s not doing this just for herself,” Jackson said. “She wants to help other kids who are just like her.”
Jackson is suing the West Virginia State Board of Education with support from the ACLU, seeking an injunction for the law, which could stop it from taking effect. Trans rights advocates are optimistic, Schneider said. The first law of this type, passed in Idaho last year, was quickly overturned in the courts.
Becky and her mom are hoping that the process moves quickly.
Cross-country practice starts in July.