Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, has announced that he will veto legislation barring transgender girls from participating in sports leagues that match their gender identity after a Republican senator introduced a last-minute overhaul of a proposed bill seeking to limit transgender athletes with a physical advantage — as determined by a panel of experts — from competing against cisgender females.
The original version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland (R-Morgan), sought to avoid a full-scale ban on transgender athletes like the one rejected last year by Utah lawmakers while ensuring that cisgender females are not disadvantaged by competing against transgender females who have a physiological advantage over them.
To that end, Birkeland’s bill would have created a seven-person panel comprised of six members appointed by the president of the State Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the governor.
The panel would include a sports physiologist, a board-certified physician, a mental health professional, an athletic trainer, and one coach or interscholastic official appointed by the presiding state athletic association.
The commission would then determine, on a case-by-case basis, an individual student’s eligibility, based on their personal physical characteristics, for competing on sports teams that match their gender identity.
The commission would take into account if the student’s participation would “present a substantial safety risk to the student or others” or give them “a material competitive advantage when compared to students of the same age.”
But Birkeland’s bill was panned by some members of the LGBTQ community, who argued that forcing transgender children to appear before the commission would be emotionally harmful and demeaning, and that appointees selected by partisan officeholders might not handle cases involving transgender athletes in good faith.
Additionally, social conservatives argued that the bill was insufficient, demanding a categorical ban on transgender athletes from female-designated sports teams.
Sen. Dan McCay (R-Riverton) then took up Birkeland’s bill and radically altered it, releasing the amended language late Friday evening, just hours before the legislature adjourned for the end of this year’s legislative session.
McCay’s changes imposed a categorical ban on transgender athletes, stating that a “student of the male sex,” as “determined by an individual’s genetics and anatomy at birth,” is prohibited from playing women’s sports.
The last-minute changes took many by surprise, including seven Republicans in the state senate who broke party lines to vote against the bill.
Minutes later, House lawmakers approved the Senate bill 46-29, with a number of GOP defectors, reports Newsweek. Notably, McCay’s proposal was nearly identical to a proposed across-the-board ban on transgender athletes that failed in last year’s legislative session due to concerns the measure would lead to boycotts of the state, cost Utah the chance to host high-profile sporting events, or incur costly lawsuits.
One of those upset with the drastic change in the bill was Governor Cox, who told reporters that the revisions came as a shock to him and that he was “very disappointed in the process.”
He vowed to veto the bill once it reaches his desk, questioning why lawmakers would want to risk the state losing a lawsuit that might arise from an across-the-board ban, wasting taxpayer dollars. Similar categorical bans in Idaho, Florida, and West Virginia have been challenged in court and blocked from taking effect.
“Anyone that’s interacted with the transgender community understands how amazing they are and how difficult it can be for them,” Cox told the Salt Lake Tribune in an interview. “I don’t want to make things harder for them than they have to be.”
But during debate, McCay argued that doing nothing places the state at risk of legal action by students or parents of students who are either injured or lose out on awards or titles because they competed against a transgender athlete. He acknowledged that defending a ban in court could be expensive, “but that doesn’t mean you yield completely,” he said.
If the state is sued or a court blocks the categorical ban from taking effect, the revised bill would set up the commission system proposed by Birkeland in her original version of the bill.
But LGBTQ advocates have noted that the Utah High School Athletics Association already has a policy in place requiring transgender girls to complete a year of hormone therapy before they can compete in female-designated sports.
The state’s top LGBTQ organization, Equality Utah, criticized McCay’s revised bill.
“This is a betrayal of Utah’s LGBTQ community. It’s a betrayal of the hard work done by people on both sides who came together to find common ground,” the organization tweeted on Friday. “We have failed our state’s transgender children, who just want to be treated with kindness and respect.”
Troy Williams, the group’s executive director, followed up with another statement praising Cox’s decision to veto the measure.
“With legislative attacks on transgender youth escalating in multiple states, Governor Cox’s veto in conservative Utah will provide a beacon of hope to LGBTQ children across the country,” he said.
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