Political cowardice drove lawmakers to come after our transgender kids. GOP legislators should be ashamed, Robert Gehrke writes

Utah lawmakers say they have the votes to overturn Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of their transgender ban in kids’ sports.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

About a week after the legislative session ended, Gov. Spencer Cox sat in front of his computer and began writing a letter to House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, explaining why he intended to veto a bill banning transgender girls from competing in sports.

Normally these veto letters are perfunctory, a short note, heavy on legal jargon explaining why the bill was rejected. This one was different.

“I needed it to be in my own words,” Cox told me this week. “I knew this would be extremely controversial and I wanted to make sure everyone understood the process and reasoning behind my decision.”

The governor learned last week that enough Republican votes had flipped to override the veto and, in that context, the letter reads less like a final word and more like a closing argument. But it is a powerful one.

Over the course of five pages, Cox laid out the flaws in the process — a bill sprung in the final hours, undoing a year of negotiation and eliminating public input — and the cost of a guaranteed lawsuit.

He ended by bringing it back to what was important: The kids. Specifically the three transgender boys and one girl playing high school sports.

“Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about,” he wrote. “Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”

Directed as that anger may be, it is also felt more broadly by all of the other kids who hear the message being sent.

Two years ago when the sports ban was first floated, Sue Robbins, a member of Equality Utah’s Transgender Advisory Council, was meeting with a group of about 40 transgender youth and their parents. Robbins asked what their biggest concern was and was surprised that the majority said it was the sports bill.

“They hear about this stuff and they worry about it,” Robbins said. “And it’s not the specifics. It’s feeling like they don’t belong. It’s like everything is stacked against them all the time.”

Proponents of banning student-athletes point to the case of Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer who was recruited and competed as a male before undergoing hormone therapy and winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle (she finished fifth and eighth in her other two events).

Conservative activists shriek about preserving the sanctity of the sport, even though the vast majority have never cared about women’s swimming and probably couldn’t name another current female competitor.

One of those competitors is Erica Sullivan of The University of Texas, who finished third in the 500. Sullivan also won the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics and recently wrote that she is grateful that being gay has never kept her from competing.

“As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership,” wrote Sullivan in Newsweek this month. “Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list.”

But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that Thomas’ case raises issues that need to be addressed, nothing in Utah’s ban touches college athletics. Instead, Utah lawmakers are targeting our kids.

If you’re thinking that this disparate and discriminatory treatment is ripe for a lawsuit, obviously it is. All of the 11 states that have transgender bans have been sued and the courts have blocked the policies from being implemented. Utah’s ban will become the 12th.

The special session being held Friday is intended to keep the Utah High School Activities Association from being bankrupted by the litigation. Instead, Utah taxpayers will get to pay for it.

There also remains the potential that the NBA could — and frankly should — move the 2023 All-Star Game out of Utah and the NCAA could relocate events, as well.

And why all such urgency? Naturally, it comes back to self-serving politics.

These Republicans flipping their votes didn’t come to the realization that HB11 is suddenly good policy or good lawmaking. They’re afraid the party’s right-wing has a disproportionate voice in the primary process and now they are trying to save their own skin.

On Friday, you can watch the cowardice and cruelty for yourself, as they try to rationalize their reversal and grasp for a way they can still look themselves in the mirror.

They will get their blurb for their campaign mailers and they might save their political career, but at what cost? I suppose, their integrity — but clearly, that’s not worth much.

What’s worth a lot more is the health and lives of our kids who are already dealing with challenges few of us understand. As the governor noted in his letter, 86% of transgender kids report suicidality and 56% say they have attempted suicide. And now those kids get to hear Legislature tell them that they don’t belong on a field or court or pool with their friends and their peers.

To those kids, I’d just say: You do belong. We value you and we want you to be happy. Keep fighting and know there are thousands and thousands of people like the governor who will fight with you.

“We’re on an arc in the right direction. It’s just painful and long,” Robbins, of Equality Utah, said. “I still feel like we’re going to get there. I just hate that we have to go through this ban to get there and more pain for these kids.”