Utah governor says he'll veto transgender youth sports ban

Utah Transgender Youth Sports (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Utah Transgender Youth Sports (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday that he plans to veto legislation banning transgender student-athletes from girls sports if it's sent to him in the final hours before lawmakers adjourn.

Transgender girls in Utah wouldn’t be able to play sports on teams that correspond with their gender identity under legislation passed through the Utah House and Senate on Friday.

Without the governor’s support, Utah is unlikely to join the 11 states, all Republican-led, that have recently enacted bans on transgender student-athletes in youth sports.

Cox had for months engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations to broker a compromise between LGBTQ advocates and social conservatives. He said on Friday that was stunned that lawmakers had amended a plan to create a first-of-its-kind commission of experts in Utah to make decisions on individual transgender student-athletes aiming to participate.

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

“I just want them to know that it’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna work through this,” he said.

The “School Activity Eligibility Commission” would have been comprised of a mix of experts in sports and transgender healthcare and ultimately failed to gain buy-in from those opposed to and supportive of a ban.

LGBTQ advocates worried transgender kids required to appear before the panel would feel targeted. Social conservatives, backed by a much larger contingent of Republican lawmakers, said it didn't go far enough to protect fairness and safety in girls sports and predicted cultural shifts would lead to a growing number of transgender kids wanting to participate in girls sports in the future.

“What we’re talking about here is that the athletic capabilities of men or boys will regularly exceed the athletic capabilities of girls. No amount of debate can change the physical fact that boys are simply built (differently) than girls,” said Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble.

There are no public accusations of a transgender players having competitive advantages in Utah. The Associated Press last year reached out to two dozen lawmakers in the more than 20 states considering similar youth sports measures and found that only a few times has it been an issue among the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who play high school sports.

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

The ban that ultimately passed retained the sections of the original proposal and designated the commission as a back-up, for a scenario in which courts prohibited Utah from enforcing a ban, like they have done in Idaho.

Birkeland said earlier in the week that an unenforceable ban would foster confusion and could exacerbate problems for cisgender and transgender athletes. But she ultimately supported the amended legislation because she said, if the ban gets enjoined by courts, the commission will end up working as intended.

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

Youth sports have increasingly become a central policy issue in Republican-majority statehouses. Before 2020, no state had enacted a law pertaining to transgender kids participating in youth sports. Since, 11 states have since passed laws banning transgender girls from playing in leagues corresponding with 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 Gov. Eric Holcomb for final approval.

The nature of the bans vary. Some explicitly target transgender girls, who have been the primary subject of debate in most statehouses. Others are broad enough to include college athletics.

After Iowa passed a ban bill earlier this week, a state senator framed the issue as part of “an ongoing culture war” and mechanism to “send a message to the nation that Iowans will not put common sense aside for wokeness.”

With two-thirds majorities in both chambers, lawmakers could override a governor's veto, however with some Republicans opposing the ban, such a scenario is unlikely.