State legislatures around the country have been trying to prevent transgender girls and women from competing with their peers. How that's playing out in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska depends on politics and people.
Daniel Wheeler remembers how it felt to don a girl's suit to compete as a swimmer in high school. Waiting to dive into the pool, the eyes of onlookers upon him, was excruciating.
"It hurt my mental health so badly,” Wheeler said. “Like there were times, when, even though I love to swim, I didn't want to get into the water."
Today Wheeler, 21, wears the correct suit when he swims for the men's team at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Assigned a girl at birth, Wheeler came out as a transgender man in college.
“It was a little scary. I didn't know if I would be accepted. I didn't know, like, if I was going to get beaten down and told I couldn't swim,” he said. “But I thought I knew what was best for me, and I did.”
Then he did what no other student athlete at Nebraska Wesleyan had done before: He left the women's squad and joined the men's. His life changed.
"I love it. I finally feel like I'm wearing the right type of suit for me,” Wheeler said. “I finally feel like I'm comfortable, because that's what we wear for hours upon hours a day. We are very, very exposed to the world. People see our bodies.”
Wheeler competes for a private university that supported his transition, and he lives in Nebraska – a red state – which does not have state laws banning transgender youth participation in sports.
While transgender male athletes like Wheeler are not the focus of lawmakers who support these laws, watching attempts in neighboring states to legislate what some term "gender participation" hurts.
Midwest lawmakers have been targeting transgender athletes. Here's where the law stands now
“Being trans has benefited my mental health,” Wheeler said. “Also being a swimmer has benefited my mental health. And they're taking away those opportunities, especially for people who are so young. It's not like we're hurting anyone by doing this.”
Around the country, lawmakers who support gender participation legislation say high school and college transgender athletes are, in fact, hurting others. They say banning transgender girls and women from competing in high school and college protects non-trans female athletes from advantages in athletic prowess that competitors transitioning from male to female may have.
Opponents of such measures call them discriminatory and point to state high school athletic associations and the NCAA, which already have created guidelines and protocols for gender participation.
“We want to do everything that we can to support our students to build that sense of belonging to make sure that our students are welcome,” said Dr. Sarah Kelen, vice president for student life at Nebraska Wesleyan. “Diversity is one of our core values, and so there was nothing to decide.”
Nebraska Wesleyan, an NCAA Division III school, followed NCAA guidance as Wheeler moved from the women's to the men's swim team.
"We have a student who wants to participate in athletics. That student is eligible to participate in athletics, and we want to support that student,” Kelen said. “We really value belonging and for our students to feel that they belong, regardless of the identities that they bring to us.”
“I have seen a lot of the laws and a bunch of it is just fear of what could come; it's not what actually exists. Because if they looked at what actually exists, this is people wanting to be themselves."