Utah families of 2 teens sue over state ban of transgender athletes in school sports

“It feels like an attack on our family,” the mother of one girl said.

The families of two transgender girls filed a civil rights lawsuit Tuesday, challenging a controversial Utah law set to ban young transgender athletes from competing in school sports that match their gender identities — a measure that “feels like an attack on our family,” a mother of one of the girls said.

The ban goes into effect July 1 under HB11, a bill that Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed, calling it “fundamentally flawed,” but the Utah Legislature ultimately overrode in March. The lawsuit argues that the ban will cause the young athletes irreparable harm and isn’t supported by medical or scientific evidence.

“This law bans transgender girls from competing with other girls in every sport, at every grade level, and regardless of each girl’s individual circumstances,” attorney Christine Durham, who is representing the families, said. “It cannot survive constitutional scrutiny and it endangers transgender children.”

The ACLU of Utah and the National Center for Lesbian Rights also are representing the families in the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in 3rd District Court against the Utah High School Activities Association, the Granite School District and its superintendent, Rich Nye.

The complaint alleges that the ban stigmatizes and discriminates against the girls because they are transgender, denying them equal opportunity to participate in school sports. It also alleges that the ban “subjects them to serious adverse effects on their physical and mental health.”

The filing asks the court to declare the ban unconstitutional and invalid.

‘This law devastated me’

The two plaintiffs — identified only as Jenny Roe, 16, and Jane Noe, 13 — are both students in the Granite School District. The 16-year-old wants to compete in girls’ varsity volleyball beginning in August, and the 13-year-old wants to compete on the high school girls’ swim team beginning in August 2023, the filing states.

“This law devastated me,” the 16-year-old said in a statement. “I just want to play on a team like any other kid.”

HB11 was passed on the final day of the 2022 legislative session after it underwent major changes in the session’s final hours. Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, had proposed a commission that would decide if transgender athletes could participate on a case-by-case basis, but Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, added an amendment that created the outright ban.

After it passed, Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the bill — but the Legislature meet in a special session and overrode his veto.

“HB11 is trying to protect two things: safety and the integrity of competition,” McCay said in a statement Tuesday. “It is our responsibility as lawmakers to pass legislation that ensures women still have a place in their sport. HB11 does just that. At times, litigation is part of the process, and we will work within the legal system to get answers.”

McKay added that a commission will be established if the ban is put on hold, and Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, in his own statement, said HB11 “puts Utah ahead of the curve by creating an unbiased, data-driven commission, continuing to protect female athletes.”

“All kids deserve fair opportunities ... The intention of HB11 is to preserve women’s sports and protect future athletic opportunities,” Bramble said.

Cox’s office declined comment Tuesday evening, citing the pending litigation. The Granite School District declined comment Wednesday morning.

State lawmakers defend ban

The Utah High Schools and Activities Association and school districts are protected against lawsuits in response to the bill. After overriding the veto, the Legislature convened a separate special session called by the governor to make changes to HB11, during which lawmakers passed a bill to indemnify the Utah High School Activities Association and school districts against costly lawsuits.

Under the ban, transgender girls will not be allowed to compete with a team under their preferred gender. They can participate in school sports, but only during practices. Neither athlete in the lawsuit wants to participate on a girls’ team unless she can compete in matches, the filing states.

The law is part of a conservative crusade that has swept the country. Utah is at least the 11th state — all controlled by GOP leaders — that has instituted a ban on transgender girls competing in interscholastic sports.

State lawmakers here argued transgender girls are bigger, faster and stronger, and would displace other girls on teams while claiming new records. Birkeland framed the effort as a way “to preserve the integrity of women’s sports.”

But Tuesday’s lawsuit alleges that instead of promoting fairness in sports, the ban undermines it.

Ban ‘tells my daughter that she doesn’t belong’

The 16-year-old plaintiff was diagnosed with gender dysphoria when she was 12, the complaint states, and she has lived as a girl since then. Because she started receiving puberty-blocking medication when she was 13, she never went through male puberty, and she plans to start hormone therapy next year.

Volleyball motivates her to do well in school, the lawsuit states. In 2021, she socialized more, got better grades, and felt happier. “My last season playing volleyball was one of the best times of my life,” she said in a news release. “I loved my teammates, felt part of something bigger than myself.”

According to the complaint, she qualified to play on the girls’ volleyball team under guidelines set by the UHSAA, which approved her to play after her parents provided a letter from her medical provider. The 16-year-old said she was threatened by another student in junior high because she is transgender, and she fears further violence, discrimination and harassment because of the ban.

“Parents want their kids to be happy and to be surrounded by people who love and nurture them,” the girl’s mother said in a statement. “This law does the opposite — it tells my daughter that she doesn’t belong and that she is unworthy of having the same opportunities as other students at her school.”

The 13-year-old plaintiff’s story is similar, according to the complaint. Diagnosed with gender dysphoria when she was 8, she went on puberty-blocking medications when she was 12. She plans to start hormone therapy when doctors recommend it.

The younger plaintiff will be an eighth grader in the upcoming school year, and wants to compete on the high school girls’ swim team beginning in August 2023. According to the lawsuit, she has “bonded with girls on her swim team, loves competing, and loves being part of the team.”

The girl’s mother said in a statement that “as parents, we want our children to be healthy and happy. ... It is deeply unsettling that the state would want to strip our child of the love and support she has received from her teammates, coaches, and entire sports community.”

She added in the statement that she and her husband “are having serious conversations, for the first time, about whether we can stay here.”

As of early Wednesday, no defendants had filed a formal response to the complaint.