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Utah Senate committee tables bill barring transgender girls from female K-12 sports

It’s unclear now what will happen with the proposal, which previously passed with a 50-23 vote through the House.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, leads the Senate during floor time, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

A Utah Senate committee voted to adjourn Wednesday night without taking a vote on a controversial bill that would bar transgender girls from K-12 sports.

The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, brought forward a substitute version of the measure Wednesday that would have barred these transgender students from competing during competitions between schools but that still allowed them to participate in public school athletics in other cases. The original version of HB302 would have banned transgender girls from playing in any female sports activities in the state’s public schools.

Birkeland, R-Morgan said the changes to the bill came after working with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox, who told reporters last week that he was “not comfortable” with the existing language of the bill. Birekland said the executive branch leaders had raised concerns about inclusion and that she felt her amendments struck the right balance between that aim and the title of her bill: “protecting female sports.”

“While I agree with inclusion in sports and wholeheartedly support the substitute that brings more people in, I believe that inclusion cannot come at the cost of fairness,” she said, contending that transgender athletes have an unfair physiological advantage.

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But after hearing at-times emotional testimony from a majority of members of the public who were opposed to the bill, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee decided not to move it forward.

One lawmaker on the committee, Sen. Jake Anderegg, told Birkeland repeatedly that he “hated” the proposal, which he said put him in the difficult position of picking between his belief that men and women have biological differences and his desire to be inclusive to members of the LGBTQ community.

“I have a hard time with this bill because I have people I know who are trans — family members, friends of mine who I desperately love,” he said. “And yet I have this biological understanding of human development that throws that into stark contrast and I don’t know how to reconcile the two.”

Under the substitute bill Birekland proposed, which was not adopted on Wednesday, schools would still be required to categorize all athletic activities as “male,” “female,” or “coed.” And students of the “male sex” would be prohibited from competing in sporting events designated as being for girls under the proposal, which defines sex as the “biological, physical condition of being male or female, determined by an individual’s genetics and anatomy at birth.”

The revisions posted online ahead of the committee hearing deleted language that would’ve enabled students to sue their schools if they feel harmed by a violation of the restrictions on transgender youth in sports.

Added to the bill was a provision barring any government entity or licensing or accrediting organization from entertaining a complaint, opening an investigation or taking any other “adverse action” against a school for maintaining separate school athletic activities for students of the “female” sex.

During public comment on the bill, several members of the transgender community — as well as parents of transgender children — urged lawmakers to vote against it, arguing that passage of the proposal would send a harmful message to transgender students who already struggle with belonging in the conservative state.

Katrina Moreno, a graduate student and athlete at the University of Utah, told lawmakers that she’s benefited from participating in sports and wanted transgender youth to have the same opportunities.

“The challenges that transgender women face outside of sports are undeniable and important. Sports certainly shouldn’t be added to that list of things,” she said. “I would be more than happy to run alongside and or compete against trans women.”

The father of a transgender daughter also joined members of Equality Utah, the Transgender Education Advocates of Utah and other LGBTQ+ groups in speaking in opposition to the bill, hoping that his daughter wouldn’t be excluded from athletics.

My daughter has expressed an interest in playing sports and I have dreamed of her one day playing for a school team,” he said. “I want her to have the opportunity to experience all of the benefits that come with the idea that this will take that opportunity.”

Opponents of the bill have also 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, a concern raised again Wednesday. And legislative attorneys have warned that there is a “significant risk” a judge would find the law unconstitutional.

While the majority of those who spoke were against the bill, several people urged the committee to adopt it during public comment on Wednesday.

One woman, who identified herself as a member of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, argued that the measure would help protect the “long and hard fought advances and opportunities for females in sports.”

Even if a male feels he’s female, he’s still a male with all of the biological advantages of strength and speed that come along with it,” she said. “And it is unfair to allow biological males to compete with women.”

Nicholeen Peck, with the Worldwide Organization for Women, raised a similar point during her testimony, arguing that transgender athletes have a biological advantage she noticed during her years playing sports.

But Nicole Mihalopoulos, an adolescent medicine doctor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Utah, said the physiological advantages that have been raised as support for the measure don’t actually exist.

Once children begin puberty, there are potential differences in strength and lung capacity but these vary across youth,” she noted. “Transgender girls receiving gender affirming medical care that blocks testosterone have testosterone levels in the same range as their cisgender female peers.”

The new proposal Birkeland brought forward Wednesday would require the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee to “study findings from relevant athletic organizations on the competitive advantage of males in sports.” And in response to concerns about the bill, she said Wednesday that she would be willing to move forward with legislation that “just included a study at this time” in order to help the state decide how to proceed with future policy.

“I could respect that,” she said. “I do. I just think we need to be looking at this and having this conversation now.”

Lawmakers ultimately opted not to move forward in that direction. And while Birkeland’s bill could be considered at a future committee hearing, it’s unclear what will happen to the proposal next at this late point in the legislative session, which ends March 5.

Birkeland said in a statement Wednesday night that she was “disappointed” the bill, which previously passed with a 50-23 vote through the House, did not move forward but said the state would continue working on it.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, struck a similar tone in his comments to the committee, expressing a desire to address these issues in a way that’s fair to all Utahns.

“Rep. Birkeland, you are a fierce champion for girls’ sports and I hope I will be an equal champion for LGBTQ kids,” he said. “And I know if we work together, we can solve these problems. But HB302 fails to balance inclusion and fair play. So I’m asking you all to really think and be aware that the whole country is watching us right now. Let’s show everybody that when it comes to Utah’s children, we’re on the same team.”

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