At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, debate of the Equality Act centered around transgender girls playing on high school sports teams, signaling a shift in strategy as the long embattled bill could be back before the Senate.

First introduced in 1974 by feminist Rep. Bella Abzug, the Equality Act would extend civil rights anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ people. The bill has languished for decades, never moving out of committee. In the interim, Congress has passed almost no protections for LGBTQ+ people apart from the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act, leaving all advances for the queer community up to the courts. Now, for the first time in history, the Equality Act has a chance of becoming law. The House already passed the bill, but it faces the steep hurdle of clearing 60 votes in the Senate. 

The Equality Act would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in public accommodations, education, employment, jury service and housing. It would also add new protections for people already protected under the Civil Rights Act, making it illegal to discriminate against people of color in ride-share and taxi services and barring discrimination against women, who are often asked to pay more for the same haircut or dry cleaning services than men. 

But in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing Wednesday, the conversation quickly shifted from nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ Americans to a question roiling statehouses around the country: Does allowing trans girls the option to compete with other girls create gender inequity?

“I am deeply concerned about this act’s potential negative implications for all girls and women in sports,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, adding that he had received a letter from the parent of a teen forced to compete against a transgender kid in her sport.

Wednesday’s focus on the issue marks a shift in strategy for LGBTQ+ rights opponents on the national stage. Moderate Republicans waffling on the measure have expressed hesitancy with the bill not because it might threaten girls’ athletics, but because they worry it lacks exemptions for people of faith

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The hearing Wednesday addressed some of those anxieties, as witnesses debated if religious organizations should be allowed to take taxpayer money and refuse services to LGBTQ+ people protected under the bill. But testimony from opponents largely argued that the act would be the undoing of women’s rights. Front and center was author Abigail Shrier, whose book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” argues that children are being groomed into believing they are trans and pushes the idea that transgender women are not women.

“If a preschool has a policy that only female teachers may accompany little girls to the bathroom, and your daughter’s male teacher suddenly identifies as female, ought that teacher to have a legal entitlement to accompany her?” Shier asked the committee.

Shier’s testimony was countered by 16-year-old Stella Keating, who told the committee that in her in home state of Washington she enjoyed gender identity protections as a transgender high school sophomore. Keating told the committee that she loves her history classes and wants to become a civil rights attorney. But her dreams, she said, depended on being able to go to college in a country where a majority of states still allow for discrimination in education against transgender people. 

“What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me?” Keating asked. “Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How is that even right? How is that even American?”

Pending passage by the committee, the bill would head to the Senate floor.