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Gov. Cox promises veto of last-minute bill to ban transgender girls from school sports

Utah Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, is sponsoring a bill to drop the income tax rate.
Ivana Martinez
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, introduced a last-minute substitute bill that bans transgender athletes from competing in school sports

Transgender girl athletes could be banned completely from competing in school sports on teams that align with their gender identity. The Utah Legislature passed the surprise bill late Friday night about an hour before the end of the session. Gov. Spencer Cox said he would veto it and it did not pass with enough support to override a veto.

“This is the bill that deals with protecting female athletes from unfair competition from transgender athletes,” said the bill’s floor sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. “Boys are simply built different than girls, and it's not fair to have them compete, whether they call them trans females or not.”

Transgender activists denounced the move and said they were blindsided by it.

“We're taking a segment of our community and discriminating against them and isolating them socially from their friends and their social networks,” Sue Robbins, a member of Equality Utah’s Transgender Advisory Council, about the impact on transgender athletes.

Robbins said it would affect transgender kids who don’t play sports, too.

“Transgender kids are going to feel like they don't have the support of Utah, that Utah just wants to push them aside and have them go away,” she said. “When you hear language about people who saw one successful transgender athlete, so they feel like they have to do something, the message is very clear: as long as you're invisible, we can put up with you. But the minute you're not invisible, we need to make you go away.”

The all-out ban was a last-minute proposal, released just hours before the legislative session ended. Some senators criticized the process and said they should take more time to vet the new version of the bill.

“This is a significant change without the ability to be able to really understand what the implications are for our school districts, for our children,” said Majority Whip Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, who voted against the bill. “It's come particularly fast without kind of meaningful conversation about it.”

The ban replaced a bill that would have set up a commission to evaluate if individual transgender athletes should be allowed to play. It would have required that committee to come up with its own rules, but suggested that they use physical characteristics like height, weight, or “the extent of physical characteristics affected by puberty.”

However, the legislation that was passed says that if the ban is struck down or paused by a lawsuit, the commission system would go into effect.

“This is an effective policy to put a pin in this debate and leave it there before we see a lot of uptake in transgender females participating in sports,” said the ban bill’s sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton. “The hardest part about this policy is there isn't an easy place to draw a line. It's not like this is a really basic analysis.”

McCay added he wants to put a ban in place while the conversation around the issue is “evolving.”

“If you look back on where gay marriage was and the idea of how it came about, [it was a] really tough issue,” he said. “[We] put a pin in it and there was a long going conversation and everybody kind of coalesced, including actions within the court. It's not a topic that's discussed very often today. I don't know when or how we will get there, but I can tell you that the right place to be right now is to have this ban in place and let the courts go through its process.”

Cox threatened a veto on an all-out ban bill last year, and said he would veto this bill as well if it got to his desk. He said the ban “came out of nowhere” after more than a year of negotiation on the issue

“To go from all of this work and all of this discussion and all of these negotiations to get to a point that was uncomfortable for everyone — but it was a path forward and really represents the best of Utah,” Cox said, “to now — on the last night of the session, out of nowhere, getting a complete ban that nobody's talked to me about — is incredibly disappointing.”

Cox had previously said he would have signed the commission bill.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill seemed to misunderstand what being transgender is.

“We keep talking about boys trying to be girls,” he said. “That's not what transgender is about: boys trying to be girls. These are individuals who are born differently and their attitudes are different.”

Some lawmakers argued the bill was unconstitutional.

“This is really concerning because it says here that we are treating two individuals separately, and that raises very serious constitutional questions under the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City.

Defeating the bill doesn’t mean the issue will go away, said the original bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

“It is not compassionate to do nothing on this issue,” she said. “Girls all across this state are asking that they be heard and that we actually start addressing this issue because it's not going to end.”

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, got emotional on the Senate floor and spoke directly to transgender youth.

“I'm disappointed in the message we're going to send to these kids tonight: these kids who just want to be normal, just want to be loved, who just want to be seen, who just want to live,” he said. “I want them to know that we're changing and we are learning and we are growing.”

Thatcher said five years ago, he would have voted for the bill.

“But as I've gotten to know you, I have loved you and I will love you,” he said. “I am sorry that tonight's going to be really hard for you. And if you are struggling and if you need someone to talk to, I want you to download the SafeUT app.”

SafeUT is a mental health crisis line for students that allows them to call or text a counselor.

“Because we need you,” Thatcher said.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Updated: March 4, 2022 at 11:13 PM MST
This story has been updated to reflect the passage of the substitute bill.
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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