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Utah Governor Spencer Cox says he plans to veto trans sports ban bill

SALT LAKE CITY, AP — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he plans to veto legislation passed Friday that would ban transgender female student-athletes from participating in women’s sports.

Without her support, Utah is unlikely to join the 11 states, all led by Republicans, that recently banned transgender girls from participating in school sports leagues that match their gender identity.

In vowing to veto the bill, Cox directly addressed transgender student-athletes, who he says have been the subject of political debate through no fault of their own.

“I just want them to know that everything will be fine. We’re going to work through that,” Cox said.

The governor had engaged for months in behind-the-scenes negotiations to broker a compromise between LGBTQ advocates and social conservatives.

After lending his support to a proposal to create a one-of-a-kind Utah commission of experts to make decisions about individual transgender student-athletes wishing to participate, Cox said he was stunned on Friday night so that lawmakers moved forward and eventually passed a modified proposal that included an outright ban on transgender female student-athletes competing in girls’ leagues.

Legislation sent to Cox after passing the state Senate and House on Friday bans “biological males” — which she defines as “the genetics and anatomy of an individual at birth” — from leagues some girls. Supporters said it would ensure fairness and safety for girls and prevent cultural shifts that they believe could lead to increasing numbers of transgender children wanting to participate in women’s sports in the future.

“Boys can run faster, they can jump higher, and they can throw farther than girls in the same age bracket,” Republican Senator Curt Bramble said.

“For male-born individuals to compete with naturally-born females, it’s an unfair playing field,” he added.

The originally proposed “School Activities Eligibility Commission” would have been made up of a mix of sports and transgender healthcare experts. It ultimately failed to gain buy-in from those who oppose and support a ban.

Utah Governor Spencer Cox speaks during a press conference at the Utah State Capitol, Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer via Associated Press

Although they preferred it to an outright ban, LGBTQ advocates worried that transgender children scheduled to appear before the panel would feel singled out. Social conservatives, backed by a much larger contingent of Republican lawmakers, said that didn’t go far enough to protect women’s sports.

There are no public accusations that a transgender player has competitive advantages in Utah. Last year, The Associated Press contacted two dozen lawmakers in more than 20 states considering similar youth sports measures and found that it was only a problem a few times among the hundreds of thousands of teenagers. who play sports in high school.

The legislation sent to the governor aims to refute what the commission’s advocates, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, thought were among their strongest arguments: that the courts would likely prevent Utah from enforcing a ban, much like they have in states like Idaho.

The ban that eventually passed retained sections of the original proposal and named the commission as a replacement, for a scenario in which the courts prohibited Utah from enforcing a ban.

Birkeland, who coaches high school basketball when she’s not in the Legislative Assembly, said her plans to introduce a sports bill for transgender youth for the second year in a row ties into the conversations she had had with transgender and cisgender students.

Although Utah lawmakers ultimately ended up in the same place, Birkeland’s comments were very different from those of lawmakers in states such as Iowa, where a senator framed a ban as a stance against “revival and part of an “ongoing culture war.”

Birkeland said she was frustrated with the many conversations she had about the politics of her commission proposal, rather than the children involved.

She expects she will face legal challenges, but ultimately backed the amended legislation because she says if the ban is imposed by the courts, the commission will eventually operate as intended.

Equality Utah, an LGBTQ rights group opposed to state intervention in youth sports, said it was blindsided by the passage of the legislation.

“We let down our state’s transgender children, who just want to be treated with kindness and respect,” the group said in a statement.

In most places, eligibility decisions for transgender children are made by athletic organizations like the Utah High School Athletic Association. Of the approximately 85,000 student-athletes who play high school sports in the state, four transgender players have gone through the association’s eligibility determination process.

Despite these established processes, youth sports have increasingly become a central political issue in Republican-majority state houses. Prior to 2020, no state had enacted legislation relating to transgender children participating in youth sports. Since then, 11 states have passed laws banning transgender girls from playing in leagues that match their gender identity – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

In Indiana, lawmakers passed a ban this week, sending it to Governor Eric Holcomb for final approval.

The nature of the prohibitions varies. Some explicitly target transgender girls, which have been the main topic of debate in most state houses. Others are broad enough to include college athletics.

With two-thirds majorities in both houses, lawmakers could override the governor’s veto, but with some Republicans opposed to the ban, such a scenario is unlikely.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion