Cox on controversial transgender sports bill: 'I would encourage you to pause on this issue'

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

(Francisco Kjolseth, Pool Photo, File)



SALT LAKE CITY — A day after Utah's House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating in high school sports, Gov. Spencer Cox said he would not sign the bill if it were placed on his desk now.

"I'm not in a place yet where I'm comfortable with the bill as it stands right now," the governor said Thursday morning during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah.

HB302, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, passed the House on Wednesday with a 50-23 vote. It was sent to the Senate Rules Committee Thursday morning. Cox also said he planned to meet with Birkeland Thursday to review the bill.

Proponents of the bill argue that transgender girls have a biological advantage over other girls.

"We have to recognize that there are differences between men and women, and that when we put certain individuals in girls sports, we are taking the opportunities for girls to win," said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, before he was one of the 50 representatives who voted to pass the bill.

The bill is detested by LGBTQ groups like Equality Utah. Shortly after it passed, Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams posted a video of his response to the bill's update.

"I'm sorry you had to listen to a lot of that testimony from lawmakers who have little proximity to the transgender community as they try to pass laws based on fear and misinformation," he said. "Every time LGBTQ Americans come out and assert our rights to live openly and authentically, there's always pushback."

Opponents also argued Wednesday that the bill could put national or global sporting events — like the 2023 NBA All-Star Game currently slated to be held in Salt Lake City or Utah's ongoing bid to host the Winter Olympics again — in jeopardy based on how a transgender bathroom law in North Carolina was handled by the NCAA a few years ago.

But Cox said his biggest problem with the bill is that didn't address enough concerns provided by the LGBTQ community, adding that Utah has "gotten really good on the 'LGBQ' side of things but we're struggling on the 'T' side of things."

The governor was asked during his news conference specifically if he would veto the bill should it pass the Senate. Cox responded that he understood the meaning of the bill — saying there was a "threat" to women's sports — but added that he believed there might be more time needed before pushing through the legislation.

"It is a threat to women's sports but also, and I think this is where we have to be so, so very careful, is that if you have not spent time with transgender youth, then I would encourage you to pause on this issue," he said. "We have so many people that are in a very, very difficult spot right now and we have very few, if any, transgender girls who are participating in sports."

For that reason, Cox said he wouldn't sign it as written. He argued that there is still time for legislators to hash out the concerns of the "really difficult and nuanced issues" that the bill addresses.

"I'm not willing to give up on this one. I think there's still much that we can do to protect women's sports and also send a message to trans kids that there's a place for them and that they belong," Cox continued, as he began to fight back tears. "These kids are — they're just trying to stay alive. … I just think there's a better way."

As Cox mentioned during the news conference, the issue regarding allowing transgender participation in sports is one playing out elsewhere in the world. The Associated Press reported that Utah was one of 20 states looking at legislation that would ban transgender athletes from participating.

At the same time, President Joe Biden signed an executive order last month that would allow for equal participation in school sports, adding that "children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room or school sports."

"Discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation manifests differently for different individuals, and it often overlaps with other forms of prohibited discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of race or disability," the order added. "For example, transgender Black Americans face unconscionably high levels of workplace discrimination, homelessness and violence, including fatal violence."

There was also a study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that analyzed fitness test results among 75 transgender U.S. Air Force cadets. It found that transgender women did run faster than cisgender women two years after taking hormone therapy but didn't find any other athletic advantages.

"After two years of taking feminizing hormones, the push-up and sit-up differences disappeared but transwomen were still 12% faster," researchers wrote. It should be noted the average participant was 26 years old and the study didn't look into school-age children.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was among individuals who launched the Women's Sports Policy Working Group earlier this month that will further research the subject to better find what the advantages are — if any — for transgender girls and women playing in female sports. The project was launched in response to Biden's executive order.

The group wanted to make a "science-based, ethical approach" to "establish a middle ground that both protects girls' and women's sport and accommodates transgender athletes," according to Reuters.

All of the national and international background is what makes HB302 so complicated, Cox said Thursday.

"This is one of the most difficult and complicated bills that we have this session, and it's complicated and difficult for a couple of reasons — the main reason it's complicated and difficult is that both sides of this issue are actually right," he said. "There's a lot of passion, fiery rhetoric, a lot name-calling on both sides of this issue that I think is unfortunate."

Cox said he hopes that both sides of the bill can come to a consensus agreement on the issue the bill seeks to address; otherwise, it's likely headed back to the drawing board with a veto.

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