The sponsor of a controversial bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports in Utah says she plans to bring it back in 2022, but she’s hoping to turn down the heat surrounding the issue before then.
The proposal from Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, died in a Senate committee in the final week of the 2021 session.
The bill failed to advance after Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith urged lawmakers to take a step back as he worried the legislation would have a negative impact on transgender youths in the state. There was also fear the issue could cost Utah several high-profile athletic events, including the 2023 NBA All-Star Game.
Birkeland says she’s taking the opportunity to examine the issue during the summer and fall and is hoping to find common ground.
“A lot of people don’t understand how complex this issue is,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that makes people feel like they’re unequal.”
So far this year, 31 states have introduced bills that would block transgender athletes from participating in sports that correspond to their gender. Several states have signed those bills into law. A 2020 Idaho law was struck down in federal court after the judge ruled the law served no purpose other than to exclude transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports.
In the months since Utah’s proposed ban failed, several other states have either introduced or passed similar bills. Earlier this month, Montana’s governor signed a ban on transgender athletes participating in sports that correspond to their gender. Florida’s governor says he will sign similar legislation into law.
Utah’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill next month, which will be the first time people can weigh in on the new proposal.
“If nothing else, this will give everybody the opportunity to get their voices heard,” Birkeland said. “I need everyone to come and tell me how we preserve women’s sports, while also supporting and accepting transgender girls. We need to talk about this without it becoming volatile and vicious.”
Birkeland added that a recent ruling by the Utah Supreme Court allowing transgender Utahns to list the sex to which they identify on state records is a new variable in the debate. An unreleased version of her proposal required transgender girls to obtain a corrected birth certificate in order to participate in athletic events.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says the bill is a solution in search of a problem.
“We have been searching high and low for transgender student-athletes in Utah schools, but so far we have not been able to find any,” he said. “Still, we believe that transgender kids can benefit from the many pro-social skills learned in school sports. Utah schools should provide opportunity for all children, including our remarkable transgender youth.”
Birkeland disagrees, claiming she’s aware of several transgender athletes competing in girls’ sports, but she declined to offer specifics for fear of singling out schoolchildren.
“I do know of some, particularly junior high, where this is happening. I won’t say where because that’s not fair to kids,” Birkeland said. “But, I’m not making up a concern that isn’t really a problem. This is something I feel needs to be addressed.”
Birkeland says anyone who wants to can contact her via social media.