Utah bill would require transgender girls to change birth certificates before joining female high school sports

Proposal’s sponsor says her plan “will accomplish the goal of preserving women’s sports.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, and Sue Robbins, Equality Utah, at a meeting of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Transgender treatment for minors and participation by transgender youth in school sports were the topics of discussion.

A proposal coming before Utah lawmakers this year would require transgender teens to change their birth certificates and undergo hormone therapy before competing in high school sports that align with their identities.

The new measure is a follow-up to a failed bill from earlier this year that would’ve barred transgender girls from competing in female K-12 sports. And while everyone from Gov. Spencer Cox to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith expressed concern about that previous plan, the new version was presented Wednesday to a legislative committee with far less controversy.

“After months of working together and addressing the concerns of parents and coaches, I believe we have a policy that is fair, balanced and will accomplish the goal of preserving women’s sports,” Rep. Kera Birkeland, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee.

Her drafted legislation states that generally, high school students can only join in a gender-specific sport that matches what’s on their birth certificate.

Teens who change their birth certificate sex designation from male to female must also go through at least a year of hormone therapy before participating in girls’ athletics, according to the bill. Treatment received prior to the certificate change counts toward the one-year requirement.

Transgender boys taking testosterone as part of a transition can compete in male-designated sports but not in female athletics, the bill states. And girls can participate in a boys’ sport if their school doesn’t offer that activity to female students.

Birkeland, R-Morgan, said the new proposal echoes the Utah High School Activities Association’s transgender student participation policy and rules used by the NCAA, although these groups do not require a birth certificate change and focus only on hormone therapy.

Sue Robbins, who chairs the transgender advisory council for Equality Utah, said there has been “great progress” on the proposal over the last few months and that Birkeland’s current version offers a workable framework for ongoing talks.

But she expressed concern about other bills that might be simmering, such as a recurring proposal to limit young people’s access to transgender health care. This measure could block teens from the very hormone therapies they’d need to comply with Birkeland’s bill, Robbins noted.

There’s also talk of amending state law on birth certificates in a way that might clash with Birkeland’s proposal.

“The transgender community, to me, has become a lightning rod, and I think we all see that in every area. We’re having to play defense,” she said. “The efforts, in some cases, are spinning in multiple directions.”

Another Equality Utah representative, law professor Clifford Rosky, also praised Birkeland for working toward a compromise but said her draft still has a few lingering problems. For instance, making teens change their birth certificates on top of receiving hormone therapy is redundant and could present an undue burden, he argued.

“It’s just requiring students effectively to pay court fees and hire a lawyer to go through a court process, and that is quite expensive,” Rosky said, estimating that the attorney fees alone would total at least $1,500.

Rosky also suggested that demanding one year of hormone therapy is excessive, especially since these treatments can work more quickly for younger students who have already been in puberty blockers.

Shortening that to a six-month requirement would accomplish the same thing and allow a student to complete a transition during the offseason rather than having to sit on the sidelines for a year, he argued.

There were some economic criticisms of the proposal, too, with a tech industry representative saying bills like these generate negative press coverage that can discourage business investment in Utah and make people reluctant to take jobs in the state.

“When people Google the state of Utah, these are the headlines that pop up,” said Elizabeth Converse of Silicon Slopes Commons. “It makes it incredibly difficult not only to retain companies but to recruit companies and recruit top talent.”

Converse said surveys put out by her group had found Utah’s political rhetoric is a leading concern, and she also shared an anecdote about a promising hire who ended up turning down a job in the state after reading about last session’s bill to block transgender girls from female athletics.

Committee members voted favorably on the bill, which is slated for consideration when the Legislature convenes in January.