SALT LAKE CITY — Transgender women would not be allowed to compete in women's collegiate and high school sports under legislation Utah lawmakers have proposed nationally and in the state.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, led 13 of his GOP Senate colleagues in introducing the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, a bill that he says would protect athletic opportunities for female athletes.
"When transgender athletes compete against women, women's sports are no longer women's sports; they become unisex athletic events," Lee said in a statement. "This bill would protect the opportunity of girls throughout America to athletically compete against other girls."
In Utah, state Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, has filed a bill titled Preserving Sports for Female Students. HB302 would require public schools and universities to designate athletic activities by sex. It would prohibit a student of the "male sex from participating in an athletic activity designated for female students."
As a high school basketball and football referee, Birkeland said she saw "discrepancies" in girls athletics that need to be resolved.
"This is about preserving women's sports. This is about making sure that we recognize that biology matters and that there's fairness for our competitors who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much," she said.
Birkeland said 275 high school boys ran faster times than world champion sprinter Allyson Felix.
LGBTQ groups are condemning the legislation. Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams called Birkeland's bill "harsh."
The proposed bans represent a fundamental misunderstanding of transgender lives and are designed to generate "irrational fear of a minority population," he said.
"Everyone's body is different. There is no one single determinant of success in sports," Williams said. "The majority of transgender athletes, like nontransgender athletes, never make it to an elite level and just want to play for fun with their friends, especially at school."
Lee said at an American Principles Project forum last month that there are instances in mixed martial arts, football, running and even roller derby where women have been injured or lost championships and scholarships because they were at a competitive disadvantage against biological males.
"This is not about being transphobic or having anything against transgender persons," he said. "This is a simple question of fairness and physical safety."
Lee's bill aims to ensure Title IX provisions relating to athletics treat sex as that which is "recognized based solely on a person's reproductive biology and genetics at birth." The bill would also make it a violation of Title IX for a school that receives federal education funds to allow a biological male to participate in women's or girls sports.
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools or education programs that receive federal money.
Lee and the GOP senators contend President Joe Biden signed an executive order last month that forces schools that receive federal funds to allow biological boys who self-identify as girls onto girls sports teams or face administrative action from the Department of Education.
But the order does not appear to impose any guidelines that would immediately change school sports. It mentions sports once, reading "children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports."
It does require federal agencies, including the Education Department, to review existing policies and programs to determine whether they are in line with the new guidance prohibiting discrimination based on gender and sexuality, and to implement changes if needed.
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, said he finds letting biological boys compete against biological girls in athletics not only unequal and unfair but "un-American."
"I want every person, regardless of sex, to have access to opportunity, but this move by the Biden administration shows no common sense and will bring about the destruction of women's sports," he said.
Women and girls deserve the opportunity to compete and enjoy the possibility of athletic victory, said Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of several conservative organizations backing Lee's bill.
"But allowing males who identify as female to compete in girls sports destroys fair competition and erases women's athletic prospects," she said.
While transgender athletes do not always win when competing against their peers, their presence in female athletics has serious negative consequences for the future of women's and girls sports, according to Lee.
Williams disagrees that transgender children are harming girls sports. He said it's not an either/or scenario. People can celebrate girls sports and not discriminate against transgender children, and make sure that young people can thrive and excel, he said.
"At the end of the day, transgender kids want the opportunity to play sports for the same reason other kids do: to have fun and be part of a team where they feel like they belong," he said.
Birkeland said her bill has nothing to do with what opponents are saying about it.
"It ensures that the playing field is fair. It does not discriminate and say that certain gender or transgender can't play sports. It merely says where they should play sports," she said.
Williams said he was disappointed by Sen. Mitt Romney's remarks about transgender athletes earlier this week.
The Utah Republican said at a Senate hearing that girls shouldn't be competing with "people who are physiologically in an entirely different category" and that boys should be competing with boys and girls should be competing with girls on the athletic field.
The proposed Utah law discriminates against transgender girls and is a "blatant" violation of NCAA policies that, if passed, would disqualify Utah from hosting NCAA championships in any sport, Williams said.
The NCAA expressed opposition to an Idaho law banning transgender women from playing high school and college sports in the state, saying in a statement last June that it is "harmful to transgender student athletes and conflicts with the NCAA's core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals."
NCAA President Mark Emmert told Lee in a Senate hearing last summer that he stands by the statement. A federal judge has put the Idaho law on hold.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified the legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom as Jessica Anderson. The organization's legal counsel is Christiana Holcomb.