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Utah lawmakers resurrect debate over transgender girls in school sports

Sue Robbins, who serves on the Transgender Advisory Council of Equality Utah, speaks about transgender youth in school sports during a Health and Human Services Interim Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.

Sue Robbins, who serves on the Transgender Advisory Council of Equality Utah, speaks about transgender youth in school sports during a Health and Human Services Interim Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most contentious issues of the recent Utah legislative session — transgender athletes in school sports — made its way back for another debate Wednesday as lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates discussed policies to address it.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, who sponsored the bill titled Preserving Sports for Female Students, promised to reintroduce the issue for study after the bill passed the House but failed to make it out of a Senate committee during the general session earlier this year. The legislation would have barred transgender girls from competing on girls sports teams.

Birkeland and others previously said Utah does not have any transgender girls playing on high school teams — a fact that made some critics of the bill question its purpose. But Birkeland said Wednesday that there actually are transgender girls playing, explaining that she withheld that information before to make sure they don't face discrimination.

The Utah High School Activities Association has no record of transgender females playing on girls teams, said David Spatafore, association spokesman. Last year, the association developed a policy for transgender students in sports after an Idaho bill that banned transgender girls on girls teams prompted an ongoing lawsuit.

The association allows transgender students to compete on gender-specific sports teams if they are identified as that gender in current school records and in "daily life activities in the school and community" when eligibility is determined. A male-to-female athlete may participate on a girls team if they have been taking hormone treatment for gender transition for at least one year, according to the policy.

Birkeland said, however, that athletes have reached out to her and told her they are transgender but fear disclosing it under the current policy, and that they don't want the media to "watch them."

She expressed frustration with past arguments against the bill, including the idea that barring transgender girls from playing on teams with other girls would take away their chances of friendship and fun.

"One thing that's important to me is when talking about preserving women's sports and youth participation in sports is that we do not downplay or degrade the hard work, sacrifice and dedication that it takes to be a top-level female athlete," Birkeland said.

She said it's harmful to claim that girls play sports for "fun, friendships or fitness."

"These games are about competition, and they are about winning. And yes, it's important that you have friendships and fun and good health, but those are merely tools that a good coach will use on their team," Birkeland said.

The representative, who is heavily involved in her area's girls sports community, said her bill was also not meant as a "ban."

"The bill was about setting parameters, parameters that would help all participants feel like they had a fair playing field," Birkeland said.

But Sue Robbins, a member of the Equality Utah Transgender Advisory Council, disagrees.

She said that her goal is to promote fairness and inclusion so that members of the transgender community are on an "equal playing field" with others in all aspects of life.

"I feel like our existence is under attack," Robbins said.

Transgender women have not dominated in sports, and none have made it past the Olympic trials despite a hormone-based policy that has allowed them to compete since 2004, Robbins said. She called the idea that transgender girls shouldn't play in girls sports because of their "male biology" dehumanizing to members of the transgender community.

But Robbins expressed optimism that an ongoing dialogue will take place between lawmakers and members of the LGBTQ community before next year's general session.

"Transgender girls are girls. This is the Utah way to have these conversations, to come to the table, and to work on it together," Robbins said.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said that he was over 6 feet tall by the age of 11 and would "tower over" his teachers. He noted that "very few" women could beat him on the basketball court.

Anderegg also pointed to former Olympic champion and reality TV celebrity Caitlyn Jenner's recent comments that those born male should not compete against females in sports.

But Robbins said Jenner hasn't been widely accepted by the transgender community "because she transitioned in a vacuum," has not faced many of the struggles others face, and hasn't engaged with the community "in a meaningful way." Robbins contended that Jenner's opinion on the matter was "negated" because she has competed in women's golf.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Salt Lake City, said that while the discussion has been framed by how to "protect female sports," there are more serious issues in the existing system, including disparities between attention and resources given to girls sports versus boys sports.

"There are real inequities, but it's not transgender students in my perspective," Harrison said.

Birkeland said she also wants to address that issue. She said she plans to hold round-table discussions on the issue during the summer, as well as conversations with LGBTQ advocates.

Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said he hopes by the end of the year lawmakers will have a "congealing" of opinions on the issue.

During the meeting, lawmakers also discussed a proposed ban on gender transition treatment for minors. No decisions were made or actions taken during the meeting, and lawmakers promised to study both issues before considering new legislation.

Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, criticized lawmakers in a statement after the meeting for "continuing to push this discriminatory and harmful effort forward" instead of addressing issues like workplace representation and the wage gap for women.

"For years, lawmakers have declined to guarantee paid parental leave and address Utah's child care crisis. Meanwhile, they have repeatedly pushed medically unnecessary bills that would limit a woman's right to make choices for her own body. Lawmakers should spend less time fighting culture wars, and more time passing laws which uplift all women and reflect our family and kid friendly state," Simpson said.

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