An emotional Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday that he was “not comfortable” with the existing language of a bill moving its way through the state Legislature that would ban transgender girls from competing in female K-12 sports.
The new governor prefaced that explanation by noting that this is “one of the most complicated and difficult bills that we have in this session” and saying that he can understand “both sides of this issue.”
In agreement with those who say the bill is necessary to ensure that Utah’s young girls can play sports without going up against transgender athletes who they contend have an unfair physiological advantage, Cox said he thinks there are “biological advantages with your birth gender.”
“It is also a fact that women’s sports has had a disadvantage for many many years,” he added during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah. “We’ve gotten better but we still have a ways to go.”
But Cox also appeared to acknowledge the criticism from advocates that the bill would further stigmatize youth who are already vulnerable and at higher risk for suicide. And he said he is working with the proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, to find a better solution.
“These kids are … they’re just trying to stay alive,” Cox said, holding back tears. “There’s a reason none of them are playing sports. And so … I just think there’s a better way. And I hope there will be enough grace in our state to find a better solution. I don’t understand all of this. I don’t. But I’m trying to understand more. I’m trying to listen and learn and, again, trying to help kids figure out who they are and keep them alive.”
“I apologize for getting a little emotional,” he continued. “But when you spend time with these kids, it changes your heart in important ways. And so I want to try to improve that message and see if we can’t find a better way to work together.”
Cox has long molded himself as a conservative ally of the LGBTQ community and received national attention for a speech he gave in 2016 after the massacre at Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar and dance club in Orlando, Fla., left 49 dead.
Two years ago, he was praised for meeting with young activists after a bill banning conversion therapy fell apart in the Legislature, and then he worked with Gov. Gary Herbert to end the practice last year.
And when he was running for governor last year, he attended a historic forum with Equality Utah in which he promised to ensure LGBTQ Utahns feel welcome and like they have a place in the state in order to improve mental health and decrease suicide rates among the community.
Cox on Thursday urged those who haven’t spent time with transgender youth “to pause on this issue.”
“We have so many people that are in a very, very difficult spot right now,” he said. “And we have very few, if any, transgender girls that are participating in sports.”
HB302, which passed through the Utah House on Wednesday on a largely party-line vote with a veto-proof majority, would require schools 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 now on its way to the Senate does not address transgender boys, who it appears would not be barred from participating in athletic activities with boys’ teams under the bill. It also does not contemplate people who are intersex, or who are born with both male and female traits.
Opponents of the proposal have argued that its passage could undermine Utah’s prospects for hosting future sports tournaments and even the Olympics, given the probability that event organizers would choose to boycott the state. And legislative attorneys have warned that there is a “significant risk” a judge would find the law unconstitutional.
Idaho, which is the only state that has so far approved one of these youth sports measures, immediately saw the law challenged in federal court. It 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.” That case is now on appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
During his monthly news conference, Cox also addressed a second bill that would affect transgender youth. That proposal from Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, 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.
The original version of that bill, which has not yet received a committee hearing, had “many flaws,” Cox said. But he said the latest iteration “is closer to what medical standards are now, and I think that that’s really important” and may be more acceptable to members of the LGBTQ community.
“We actually had some conversations yesterday with Equality Utah and others on that very bill,” Cox noted. “I had threatened to veto that bill before.”
The new governor said he believes that the government should not get between doctors and patients; he doesn’t want to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, for example, and he sees this issue through a similar lens.
Discussions on HB92, he said “are still ongoing. And we’ll see what a final version of that bill could look like.”