Utah bill would bar transgender girls from female sports in college, grade school

Similar legislation is cropping up in other states, but only Idaho has passed it so far.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Flags standing at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. to mark Transgender Awareness Week.

A Utah lawmaker has filed a bill that would exclude transgender girls from competing in female sports in colleges and public and private grade schools — a move that LGBTQ advocates say would alienate young people who are already at higher risk of suicide.

Titled “preserving sports for female students,” the legislation sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland would require schools or collegiate institutions to categorize all athletic activities as “male,” “female,” or “coed.” Students of the “male sex” would not be permitted to join in sporting events designated as being for women, according to the bill, which defines sex as the “biological, physical condition of being male or female, determined by an individual’s genetics and anatomy at birth.”

The bill, HB302, also opens the door for legal action against schools that don’t comply, stating that students who lose an athletic opportunity or feel harmed by a violation of the mandate could sue for damages. Whistleblowers who face repercussions for flagging an infraction could also sue, as could institutions that suffer harm from a governmental entity, licensing or accrediting group or athletic association, according to the measure.

[For more Utah politics, sign up for The Rundown newsletter: https://www.sltrib.com/newsletters/]

Birkeland, R-Morgan and a junior varsity basketball coach for the girls’ team at Morgan High School, told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview that she sees the bill as a way to improve “fairness and equality with women’s sports.”

She said she’s spoken to some female athletes who are concerned “that they have had to run and compete against someone who identified as a male at birth and how that set them back, how that competition was that much more difficult and they lose and feel they’re put at a massive disadvantage and there’s nothing they can physically do at this point to overcome that.”

“They aren’t physically the same as a boy and don’t come to that same physicality as naturally,” Birkeland added. “So to me, we’ve got to address this issue.”

The legislation is expected to generate significant opposition from members of the LGBTQ community, who began speaking out against the proposal even before the language was released to the public on Wednesday.

Candice Metzler, executive director of the Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, said in a recent interview that she fears this legislation and other bills under consideration that would impact the transgender community would add “to the despair” transgender youth already experience.

“This is just adding stigma and really demonstrates in my opinion why we see so much bullying in our high schools towards kids who are different,” she said.

Forcing transgender youth off the field could be “incredibly dangerous, harmful and destructive,” agreed Troy Williams of Equality Utah, noting that members of the LGBTQ community are particularly at risk of suicide.

“We know that the most important protective factor against suicidal ideation is fostering an enduring sense of belonging and inclusion,” he said. “When kids know they’re part of a greater whole, they’re more resilient. ... When they feel isolated, excluded, alienated, that’s when those suicide risks spike.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy organization identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been pushing similar bills in states across the nation in its latest attack against the LGBTQ community, Williams said.

“I call this tabloid legislation because it stirs up emotions and ignites the culture wars,” he said, adding that Birkeland did not speak to Equality Utah or Transgender Education Advocates of Utah while drafting the bill.

Only Idaho has so far approved one of these youth sports measures, but it was immediately challenged in federal court and was temporarily blocked from going into effect after a judge found the plaintiffs were “likely to succeed in establishing the Act is unconstitutional as currently written.”

Proponents of these bills often argue that it’s unfair to allow transgender girls and women to participate in female sports. Sen. Mitt Romney offered that perspective Wednesday during Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing for secretary of education.

Referring to his grandchildren, the Utah Republican said, “They shouldn’t be competing with people who are physiologically in an entirely different category. And I think boys should be competing with boys and girls should be competing with [girls] on the athletic field.”

Birkeland struck a similar chord, noting that she anticipates opposition this session from people who will say, “you’re shutting the door on us.”

“But there are girls right now, I promise you that feel like the opportunities for them to compete in athletics, those doors are shutting and they’re shutting fast,” she said.

Williams said only a handful students, whether transgender or not, rise to elite levels of athleticism, and most just want to play sports with their friends.

Birkeland’s measure could also cost the state economically, he added. North Carolina suffered an economic hit of nearly $4 billion after enacting the “bathroom bill,” a law that banned transgender people inside state buildings from using restrooms that fit their gender identities. Companies and conventions left North Carolina over the controversial restriction — which was contested in a long legal battle ending with a settlement that stipulated transgender individuals could use bathrooms that matched their gender identities.

“Utah has avoided so far all of those debacles, and so we shouldn’t tempt fate,” Williams said. “Utah businesses want to create a culture and a community where everyone is welcome, and these types of message bills really go the opposite directions.”

As disagreements about the proposal have emerged, Birkeland said her goal is to ensure debate remains respectful and that the focus stays on what she sees as the issue at hand: “the topic of equality in women’s sports.”

“This is not an anti anything bill,” she said. “This is a bill that is pro women, for women. Because we need them to know we do care and we hear them saying does anybody care about our sports.”

Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, is running a separate bill aimed at transgender youth. His bill, HB92, would make it “unprofessional conduct” for a person to perform a “transgender procedure on a minor,” such as hormone therapy for minors who are considering transitioning or a procedure altering their sex characteristics.

“When they hit 18 and they still want to do the hormones and the surgeries, OK,” Shipp told The Tribune in a recent interview. “But not when they’re young and kids.”

Metzler said her organization is also opposed to that bill, which she sees as “targeting a vulnerable group of youth and politicizing their needs.”