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Transgender athletes could have path for participating in high school sports under new legislation

trans girl bill.jpg
Chip Griffin/ Flickr
“I believe we have a policy that is fair, balanced and will accomplish the goal of preserving women's sports,” said bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is back with a new version of a bill that addresses transgender girl participation in school sports after her proposal for a full ban failed earlier this year.

A Utah legislative committee approved the latest iteration Wednesday.

The bill allows transgender high school girls to compete if they have had one year of hormone therapy and changed the sex designation on their birth certificate. During the committee meeting, Birkeland said she viewed puberty blockers as qualifying as the hormone therapy required in the bill, although that’s not explicitly stated in it.

This is a step up from the current requirement from the Utah High School Activities Association, which requires a year of hormone therapy, but not a changed birth certificate. Birkeland’s bill is the result of negotiations between her, Equality Utah, the ACLU, parents, coaches and UHSAA. Middle and elementary school students would have no limitations on which teams they can play on under the legislation

“I believe we have a policy that is fair, balanced and will accomplish the goal of preserving women's sports,” Birkeland said. “It will help alleviate concerns of fairness and make sure that there are no competitive advantages or disadvantages for any athlete. … I want to make sure that my daughter is playing on an even playing field.”

An attorney for Equality Utah, Clifford Rosky, said the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization was close to endorsing the bill. Rosky said they would throw their support behind it if the legislation makes clear that puberty blockers count as qualifying hormone therapy and the birth certificate requirement is removed.

“It's requiring students to pay court fees and hire a lawyer to go through a court process and that is quite expensive,” he said. “That's a big barrier for a lot of students.”

Birkeland said the birth certificate change was important because “that will be something that creates a buy-in through all parents and athletes out there. Like, you know what? They're committed, they're doing this. They're really sincerely committed.”

The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that judges should grant requests for transgender people to change the gender on their birth certificate. Earlier this fall, a state legislative committee discussed tweaking that ruling with a new statute, and the Legislature could consider a bill to do that during the General Session that starts in January.

But Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, questioned whether requiring hormone therapy would do enough to even the playing field. Anderegg told the committee he was 6’4” by the time he finished sixth grade, which gave him a competitive advantage at basketball even though he couldn’t dribble very well.

“If I'm transgender and I transition after I've had those biological developments, how do you negate that when you're talking about competition in a female sport?” he said. “I still see that as being a competitive advantage, and fairness is the point.”

However, Birkeland argued she wasn’t trying to address every aspect of competitive fairness in this bill.

Transgender activist Sue Robbins said she appreciated the work Birkeland has done to get closer to a compromise on transgender participation in sports.

But she said she’s worried about other legislation in the works that harm her community’s rights, like a ban on hormone therapy for minors and a ban on changing sex markers on birth certificates. Both of those proposals could undermine Birkeland’s bill.

“The transgender community to me has become a lightning rod, and I think we all see that in every area. We're having to play defense,” Robbins said. “We've been educating and we have made progress here. I believe we should take this framework and see where it will lead with the other bills potentially causing distraction and conflict against this effort. … We have the ingredients. We got to put the recipe together.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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