State Rep. John Autry says measures that would ban his transgender granddaughter from participating in sports or using certain restrooms or allowing for her discrimination are "shattering"
North Carolina House Representative, John Autry
North Carolina state Rep. John Autry
| Credit: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty

John Autry is a North Carolina politician and a grandfather — and he spoke as both this week in criticizing legislation that targets transgender children like his granddaughter.

Autry, a Democratic state representative from Charlotte, told reporters on Tuesday that he was so staunchly opposed to such bills, which would bar transgender kids from sports team that match their gender, because the issue affects his own family.

Instead, Autry said, he backed a spate of anti-LGBTQ discrimination measures in North Carolina.

"For me, it's a personal issue," he said during a press conference Tuesday. "I have family members that are in the LGBTQ community, including a grandchild that identifies as female and is transitioning. I would do anything to protect any of my children and my grandchildren and that is one of the reasons I am so supportive with these measures here today."

Lawmakers in at least two dozen states, including North Carolina, are working to pass bills that would require school-aged athletes to compete in sports based on their sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity.

The transgender community has increasingly become a flashpoint among conservatives across the country. Critics of including transgender athletes argue they have unfair physical advantages. But doctors and scientists say that is an oversimplification not supported by the facts.

Other supporters of such bans have gone even further, invoking inflammatory stereotypes about transgender people and insisting they must be kept separate to "protect" people.

In North Carolina, House Bill 358 would require that gender identity not be considered at all among those competing in sports at the middle school, high school and collegiate levels. Instead, participation in sports would be "based solely on a person's reproductive biology and genetics at birth."

Autry is among the North Carolina Democrats to introduce opposing legislation that they say would protect the LGBTQ population in light of these efforts.

Among other things, the Democratic bills would repeal the state's controversial "bathroom bill" (known as HB2) and ban conversion therapy, a widely denounced practice that seeks to change the sexual or gender identities of people who undergo the purported treatment.

An additional measure, sponsored by Autry, would ban the use of the so-called "gay or trans panic" defense in an assault or homicide case — outlawing a legal strategy which blames a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity for a defendant's violent reaction.

It's the increase in measures about transgender youth in sports, however, about which Autry said he had received the most correspondence.

"You know, a transgender girl is not a boy," he said on Tuesday. "And the emails that I am receiving portraying that there is some conspiracy of transgender youth to assume an identity that they were not born with to cheat at sports is just ludicrous and I can't find the words that can express my, I guess, disgust, is one of them."

In an emotional conversation with PEOPLE this week, Autry elaborated on his remarks. He says measures that would ban his transgender granddaughter from participating in sports or using certain restrooms or allowing for her discrimination are "shattering."

"Aside from the basic dehumanization of her by such measures, it's hurtful," Autry says.

As a lawmaker in a state with many conservatives, Autry says he gets a mix of messages from constituents — including plenty of emails that argue transgender sports bans are necessary.

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"The ones that are really troubling are the ones that take the position that these children are perpetuating a concerted fraud to present themselves as transgender just to cheat at sports," he says. "That is not the case at all — especially with a child who is transitioning. I don't see how hormones they take can make them better runners, or batters, or dribblers, or free-throw shooters at all."

As Autry explains, none of the sponsors of the North Carolina bill have offered up any evidence of cases in which athletes have claimed to be transgender only to compete in sports.

"No one is coming after your granddaughter's track medal," he says.

They are, he says, impacting the lives and emotions of LGBTQ children.

"They're hurting people. And they're hurting my children and they're hurting my grandchildren," he says. "And I will not stand for that."

Autry says the wave of bills aimed at transgender people is rooted in a long history of fear-mongering: "When you don't have anything else to offer your voters except fear of the other, it's a pretty sad state that you're operating within."

While he tells PEOPLE he doesn't typically discuss legislative issues with his grandchildren, Autry says he likes to think his efforts for the LGBTQ community are improving their lives.

"Transitioning is a journey, and my transgender granddaughter is still feeling her way through all of this," he says. "But my daughter sent me a photo of them at a Pride event, and my granddaughter was wearing the trans flag as a cape. I thought, Maybe I had something to do with advancing our society, with allowing her to feel open and free to express herself and realize who she really is."