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‘No one’s happy’ with Utah’s latest transgender student-athlete eligibility bill

Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland is the representative for District 53 in the Utah House.
Ivana Martinez
Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland is the sponsor of HB 11, a bill that wants to determine eligibility standards for transgender student-athletes.

There’s a new version of a transgender sports bill in the Utah Legislature — and no one on either side likes it.

When the legislation was first proposed last year, it was an all-out ban on transgender girls playing sports in Utah public schools. The latest version, passed along party lines by the House Health and Human Services Committee Monday, creates a commission to evaluate the issue on an athlete-by-athlete basis.

Under HB 11, if an athlete’s gender marker on their birth certificate doesn’t match the sport they want to play, a commission is called together. It would include a doctor specializing in gender-identity health care and a sports physiologist who are both appointed by the speaker of the House.

It would also include a high school coach, statistician and mental health professional, among others. The commission would then decide if it’s fair and safe for the student to participate through weighing physical characteristics like body mass, hip-to-knee ratio and wingspan.

Equality Utah opposes the bill over concerns about the makeup of the commission and the physical characteristics transgender athletes would be judged on.

“We're worried about the House of Representatives choosing what medical doctors will be on the commission,” said Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group, “which could be weighted against transgender kids if, for example, not currently, but in the future, someone in the House had an anti-transgender bias.”

Williams also said he would like the commission to decide the characteristics they examine — not have them laid out in the bill.

Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative group, is against the legislation because it still allows transgender girls to play on girls’ sports teams.

“This bill will allow biological boys to continue to play with biological girls,” said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum. “If we pass this bill, you will eliminate girls' sports. We will only have boys' sports and coed sports.”

But Republican lawmakers on the committee applauded the bill and said it was a good compromise.

“You know you've done a good job at a compromise when no one's happy,” said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman. “I really appreciate the sponsors’ work on this. I think you've been balancing being compassionate and inclusive in sports, as well as acknowledging the competitive nature and the safety element of sports.”

The committee was concerned about a potential loophole in the bill which states that transgender athletes that have had the gender on their birth certificate changed still have to get approval from the commission. However, those court records are sealed, said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

She said she doesn’t see it being an issue because the bill applies to middle and high schools. She said most transgender students she knows don’t change their gender marker before turning 10 or 11 years old. And, she added, if a student changes their birth certificate in middle or high school there would be other records to indicate that, like previously playing on the sports team of a different gender.

Birkeland also hopes her bill would help with the division this issue has created among kids.

“That empowers the girls to understand that they're here playing on a fair, even playing field,” she said. “It also empowers the student-athlete that's transgender into feeling like ‘I do belong here.’”

But Jennifer Plumb, the mother of a transgender high school student who doesn’t play sports, said the continued focus on this issue has actually hurt her daughter.

“As she watches what's happening across the country, she does wonder why there is this target [on transgender kids],” Plumb said, “I think because these kids already feel so targeted by society.”

The bill now heads to the House floor.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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