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Gov. Spencer Cox vetoes transgender sports bill, but legislative leaders plan an override

Utah Legislature 2022 // Student Eligibility in Interscholastic Activities Bill Screencap
Utah State Legislature
As he promised earlier, Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed HB11 on March 22, 2022. Shortly after, the Utah Speaker of the House and the Senate President said they had the votes for an override and will hold the special session on March 25.

Gov. Spencer Cox has vetoed a controversial bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls sports, following through on a promise he made during the legislative session.

Lawmakers introduced — and passed — the measure on the final night of the 2022 General Session, with just hours left until the end. It replaced a bill that stemmed from a year of negotiations between LGBTQ advocates and conservative groups, though reportedly no one from either side of the issue liked the bill.

Cox explained his veto in a letter to House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. He mentioned concerns about lawsuits and pointed to how only a handful of openly trans kids are playing school sports in Utah.

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly. For that reason, as much as any other, I have taken this action in the hope that we can continue to work together and find a better way.”

Almost immediately after Cox’s office announced the veto, legislative leadership declared the Legislature would hold a veto override session. The bill initially passed by a narrow enough margin to suggest lawmakers would not have enough support to override a veto.

But Speaker Wilson said he anticipated there would be enough votes at this point.

“Ultimately, the Legislature recognizes the value of girls athletics, and our members want to ensure girls have the level playing field to compete that was created by Title IX,” Wilson said.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, who sponsored the bill said in a statement she was disappointed by Cox’s veto, but she is “hopeful that the Legislature will continue in its efforts to protect the integrity of women’s sports.”

“High school girls across the state have expressed their concerns, and we owe it to them to listen,” Birkeland said. “Sports are their opportunity to overcome obstacles and break barriers. But in order to do that, they need a fair playing field.”

While lawmakers argue they’re trying to protect women’s sports, Sue Robbins, who’s on Equality Utah’s Transgender Advisory Council, said she believes they’re actually sending a message that paints a target on trans girls.

“Now you have said that transgender girls are different and that they're harmful to everybody else,” Robbins said. “So now people who are uneducated are going to judge bodies for whether they're feminine or masculine. They will attack and bully the people based on the way they look.”

Local leaders also condemned the Legislature’s actions. In a tweet, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called it “cruel and unnecessary.”

“I strongly support the governor’s choice and stand with Utah’s transgender kids,” she said. “They deserve better than this. This special session is mean-spirited and should be beneath the dignity of our state.”

In his letter to legislative leaders, the governor acknowledged lawmakers may override his veto.

“I recognize the political realities of my decision,” he said. “Politically, it would be much easier and better for me to simply sign the bill. I have always tried to do what I feel is the right thing regardless of the consequences. Sometimes I don’t get it right, and I do not fault those who disagree with me. But even if you disagree with me, I hope this letter helps you understand the reasons for my decision.”

The Legislature plans to convene for the veto override session on Friday, March 25.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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