Utah bill that would ban transgender girls from girls high school sports stalls in Senate committee

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, talks about her bill HB302 at a House Education Committee meeting at the State Office Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The bill would bar transgender athletes at public schools to participate in girls sports.

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A group of senators motioned to adjourn Wednesday evening instead of voting to push along a bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in Utah high school sports after a passionate, and at times contentious, hearing over the bill.

The decision by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee stalls HB302, a bill that Gov. Spencer Cox voiced concerns over last week, and makes it more difficult to pass during the 2021 legislative season. The session ends March 5.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, the bill's primary sponsor, said in a statement afterward that she was "disappointed" with the decision but that she also had "trust in the legislative process.

"This is a complex and sensitive issue and I appreciate the robust discussions I had with a broad group of stakeholders, colleagues and constituents, and I thank all those who voiced their opinions," Birkeland's statement read, in part. "I will continue to stand up and speak out for past, current, and future female athletes fighting for the opportunity to compete fairly. I am optimistic we can continue to work together to create policies that preserve female sports."

Meanwhile, opponents of the bill celebrated the committee's decision to not move the bill forward.

"We are grateful to the members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee! HB 302 will not move forward," said Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, in a statement. "Today, Utah has again demonstrated that when it comes to protecting all children, we are on the same team."

The decision Wednesday evening was made just hours after Birkeland offered a third substitute that adjusted the language of the bill that had passed the state House of Representatives last week.

The tweak would have allowed transgender girls to practice with girls high school teams but would still ban them from competition against another school. The latest version also calls for the Education Interim Committee to study "findings from relevant athletic organizations on the competitive advantage of males in sports."

It also included language that points out that the state would absorb the costs of any lawsuit filed against a school over the law, if it were challenged in court.

Utah High School Activities Association acknowledged during the meeting that there currently are no known transgender girls competing in Utah high school sports right now. The original bill drew criticism from the LGBTQ community, who called it discriminatory.

Birkeland appeared in front of the committee to defend the bill, adding that the third version was completed with input from the governor's office. She asserted that the bill wasn't intended to be less inclusive.

"This bill was never about not including others and I want to make that very clear," she said. "This is bill's been about preserving women's sports. ... All we are asking for, the only thing we want, is fairness when we go to compete in our sports."

She also addressed questions about the timing of the bill that some may have it.

"I believe now is the correct time to address this issue, before we have a 16-year-old child who's caught a headline, or school or community torn apart," she said. "We have the opportunity to be proactive, instead of reactive. In sports, biology matters, muscle mass matters, even our reproductive systems matter."

But the bill was met with overwhelming negative feedback during the public comment section of the meeting and from members of the committee. Transgender individuals, parents of transgender children, advocates, medical experts and legal scholars all lined up in the room and on a Zoom call to voice their concerns with the bill.

Although trans women may gain experiences from doing sports, too, the challenges trans girls and women face outside of sports are undeniable and unavoidable. Sports certainly should not be added to that list of things. I would be more than happy to run alongside and/or compete against transgender women.

–Katrina Moreno, a member of University of Utah's track and field team

"We do not have a problem with transgender students participating in high school sports in Utah. We do have a problem keeping transgender students in school or having them transfer to safer schools, or be homeschooled where they are isolated further and they lose out on more opportunities," said Dr. Candice Metzler, the executive director for the Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, and a therapist for LGBTQ youth.

A handful of current and former female athletes also spoke out against the bill Wednesday.

"Make no mistake, although trans women may gain experiences from doing sports, too, the challenges trans girls and women face outside of sports are undeniable and unavoidable," said Katrina Moreno, a member of University of Utah's track and field team. "Sports certainly should not be added to that list of things. I would be more than happy to run alongside and/or compete against transgender women."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, as well as representatives of the NCAA in Utah and representatives of the state's tech scene, Silicon Slopes, also voiced opposition to the bill Wednesday. They argued that it would cause problems not only for transgender students but create economic problems. One recent example is when the NCAA moved events out of North Carolina after that state's legislature passed a transgender bathroom law.

Not everyone who provided comments was against the bill. Vicky Smith, who said she is a female athlete and that her daughters are "heavily involved in sports," said that she believed transgender girls would have biological advantages over cisgender girls.

"Girls deserve to compete on a level playing field. Science and common sense tells us that males are generally bigger, faster (and) stronger than females," added Gayle Ruzicka, president of Utah Eagle Forum, an influential conservative political organization.

"They have larger hearts and lungs and denser bones and stronger muscles," she added. "No amount of hormone therapy can undo all of these advantages. Allowing males to compete in girls sports spells the end of girls sports."

The committee also turned to a pair of biological and also legal experts from the University of Utah during the meeting. Dr. Nicole Mihalopoulos, chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said she was not representing the university but offered her insight on the subject.

"Transgender girls are not men ... physiologically, children who have not started puberty are not different from each other," she said, adding that there are "potential differences" between sexes but that changes in transgender girls when they receive hormones that block testosterone.

"Transgender girls receiving gender-affirming medical care that blocks testosterone have testosterone levels in the same range as their cisgender peers," Mihalopoulos continued.

Clifford Rosky, professor of law at the University of Utah, also said he didn't want to attack Birkeland or the intent behind the bill but said it was likely that the bill would be determined to be unconstitutional in federal courts. He likened it to a similar bill in Idaho that a federal judge struck down last year.

"This bill singles out transgender girls and denies them the opportunity to compete in school sports — an opportunity that's offered to every other child in our state," he said. "It's discrimination and it's dangerous. It isolates students in a way that would be damaging to anyone."

By the time the public comment period ended, it was clear the committee felt that the bill needed more work. The decision to adjourn without a decision on the bill happened without much discussion of the bill itself. After the public comment session ended, Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, said he understood what the bill intended to do but said it fell short of the balance needed to address the issues brought up from both sides of the argument.

"I have some concerns with the constitutionality of this bill, but I think that could be worked out in time and I would encourage you to maybe seek your leadership and have them put it into a study group or interim study," he said.

The committee voted to adjourn after his remarks.

HB302 faced criticism before it passed last week. Since then, it had already faced negative feedback. Cox said that he wouldn't sign the bill that passed as it was written during his monthly PBS Utah press briefing. His comments were made less than 24 hours after it passed the House.

Cox called it is "one of the most difficult and complicated bills" this year and that he understood its intent, but he argued the bill didn't do enough to address concerns brought up by members of the LGBTQ community.

"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 said at the time. "These kids are — they're just trying to stay alive. … I just think there's a better way."

It's unclear what's next for the bill with only one week left in the legislative session. During the meeting the Wednesday, Birkeland also mentioned the possibility that the bill could be stripped down to a study of the issue.

"If this body would be most comfortable moving forward with legislation that just included a study at this time, I could respect that," she said. "I just think we need to be looking at this and having this conversation now."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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