Panel would evaluate weight, height and wingspan of transgender student athletes under Utah bill

The commission would look at wingspan, hip-to-knee ratio and stride to determine if a transgender student could compete.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, during a hearing on HB302, a controversial bill on transgender athletics, by the Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Utah transgender students who want to compete in school sports corresponding with their gender identities would first have to secure permission from a commission tasked with evaluating their height, weight and other physical characteristics, according to a state bill.

The proposal is the latest in Rep. Kera Birkeland’s push to regulate transgender student participation in interscholastic athletics.

But during a Monday morning legislative committee hearing, both LGBTQ advocates and conservative groups came together to oppose her newest idea.

“I talked to my kid last night about this bill and asked a little for her insight,” said Jennifer Plumb, a physician and mother of a transgender child. “And she said, ‘Well, if the goal is to keep us out of the locker rooms and off the courts, it’s working.’”

Gayle Ruzicka of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum also spoke out against HB11, arguing it would signal the end of girls sports.

Her prediction was echoed by a website called “Protect Our Women,” which popped up on the eve of the legislative hearing and urged people to lobby lawmakers against Birkeland’s proposal. The website asked if Utah’s male leaders “hate women” and declared that if legislators pass the bill, “girls can kiss their scholarships goodbye.”

Ruzicka told state lawmakers she preferred the bill Birkeland, R-Morgan, brought forward last year, a measure that would have barred transgender girls from female school sports.

That original proposal died in the Legislature last year over fears that it could cost the state high-profile athletic events and after Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith lobbied against it. Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, also noted that a similar bill passed in Idaho has drawn a lawsuit and still has not taken effect.

After her bill imploded last year, Birkeland spent months talking with students and advocates, and Troy Williams of Equality Utah said he appreciates the time she has taken to listen to the perspectives of transgender Utahns. But Williams said his organization can’t support HB11 as it is written.

For instance, Williams objects to letting political leaders in the state select members of the commission that would determine student eligibility, expressing concern that anti-transgender sentiment might influence the appointments.

Under Birkeland’s bill, the Senate president, House speaker and governor would choose commission members, who would include a mental health professional, medical statistician, physician specializing in gender transitions, a sports physiologist, an athletic association representative and an athletic trainer.

The proposed commission composition also concerned Williams, who said it puts “far too much weight on the value of competition and far too little on the value of participation.”

Equality Utah advocates disagreed, as well, with mandating that the commission consider specific physical characteristics as they evaluate a student’s eligibility for a sport. Experts should develop their own criteria for making these decisions, he said.

Birkeland’s bill states that the panel should “establish a baseline range” of physical characteristics — such as weight, height, wingspan, hip-to-knee ratio, stride and flexibility — for a gender-specific sport at a given age and use that when they are considering individual students’ participation.

The House and Human Services Committee voted in support of the measure, with three Democratic committee members opposed. It will now go to the full House for consideration.

“In my opinion, you know you’ve done a good job at a compromise when no one’s happy,” Pierucci said.

Birkeland argues that her bill would benefit all student athletes, including those who are transgender, because it will establish a clear process. Without that, animosity and divisions can emerge as students wonder if they’re operating on a level playing field, she said.

The lawmaker, who is a high school basketball referee, said she has asked female student athletes if they would feel as upset if they knew a commission were overseeing transgender participation in school sports.

“They said, ‘No, then I feel like somebody’s checking to make sure that we’re not just going to get blown away,’” she said.

Birkeland said she is aware of fewer than a dozen transgender student athletes competing in Utah.

The Utah High School Activities Association already has a participation policy that says transgender girls can only join in female athletics after they have completed a year of hormone therapy. Transgender boys who have been on hormone therapy can only compete in male sports, according to the policy.

Plumb later spoke about the consequences of subjecting transgender young people to more intense scrutiny — especially since they already dread having their identities questioned and attacked.

“When we start talking about ... verify that you’re girl enough or verify that you’re boy enough, these kiddos, they shake in their proverbial boots,” she said.

With Birkeland’s bill, students would have to come before the commission if the gender marker on their birth certificate doesn’t match the gender-specific sport they are seeking to play. Birkeland said student athletes already have to submit their birth certificates as a routine step in joining a school sport.

Transgender students who have already changed the gender marker on their birth certificates would also have to come before the commission but might have to self-report in some cases, she said. Most athletes this young, though, have not yet taken this step, she said.

After reviewing information provided by the athlete, the commission would consider whether granting the student’s request would “present a substantial safety risk to the student or others” or would likely “give the student a material competitive advantage when compared to students of the same age,” according to the bill.

The group would have to notify the student of the conclusion within 30 days of making a decision.