Utah bans transgender athletes from girl’s sports, overriding governor’s veto

Governor urged ‘kindness, mercy and compassion’ as LGBT+ advocates warn against legislation’s compounded harms against already-vulnerable children

Transgender athlete's historic win stirring up controversy
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State legislators in Utah voted to override Governor Spencer Cox’s veto of a bill banning transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports, despite his powerful veto letter urging “kindness, mercy and compassion”.

On Monday, Republican Governor Cox explained to the state’s legislative leadership that only four transgender students participate in high school sports in the state, and only one transgender student participates in women’s sports.

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” he wrote. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.”

On Friday, the state’s GOP-controlled House voted 56-18 to overturn his veto, followed by a vote of 21-8 in the state Senate.

At least a dozen states have moved to ban transgender athletes from sports, as Republican legislators and powerful conservative Christian groups promote legislation targeting LGBT+ young people, with a majority of bills aimed at transgender youth.

More than 320 bills that would impact LGBT+ Americans are under consideration in state legislatures across the US, with roughly one-third of those bills directly targeting transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Roughly half of those bills prohibit transgender youth from participating in school sports.

Indiana Governor Eric Holbomb vetoed similar legislation in his state, telling legislators that he remains unconvinced by arguments that there exists an issue in school sports or a lack of fairness in women’s sports requiring government intervention.

“After thorough review, I find no evidence to support either claim even if I support the overall goal,” he wrote.

A 2021 report from LGBT+ suicide prevention and crisis intervention group The Trevor Project found that LGBT+ young people are four times more likely to seriously consider, plan or attempt suicide than their peers, while LGBT+ young people between the ages of 13 and 24 attempt to kill themselves every 45 seconds within the US.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and members of the Salt Lake City Council condemned the state legislature’s actions, which the governor and advocates have warned will also expose the state to costly litigation and a multimillion-dollar economic impact to the state.

“We consider this action to be particularly tragic, given that the responsibility of all lawmakers is to provide equal protection and dignity under the law to all people,” city officials said in a statement.

Ryan Smith, owner of the Utah Jazz – partially owned by Dwayne Wade, whose daughter is transgender – said the legislation was “rushed, flawed and won’t hold up over time. I’m hopeful we can find a better way.”

The ACLU of Utah said it is prepared to “litigate to protect the rights of transgender students in Utah”.

“Discriminating against transgender athletes not only prevents them from experiencing the sense of confidence and inclusion associated with participating in sport, but it also compounds the exclusion and trauma far too many transgender Utahns already experience,” the organisation said in a statement.

In response to the governor’s veto letter, Utah’s senate president J Stuart Adams said that “doing nothing is taking a step backward for women” and that “finding a solution to this complicated issue is necessary to maintain fair competition now and in the future.”

As initially written, House Bill 11 would have allowed transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports if a commission agreed they were not a threat to cisgender girls in competition.

But a last-minute substitute created an outright ban of all transgender girls from sports that align with their gender.

“It is important to note that a complete ban was never discussed, never contemplated, never debated and never received any public input prior to the legislature passing the bill on the 45th and final night of the session,” Governor Cox wrote.

Human Rights Campaign legislative director and senior counsel Cathryn Oakley said the state’s legislature “shows no shame.”

“The Utah legislature should focus on the real issues impacting Utahns, not needlessly attack a handful of vulnerable children who pose no threat and just want to play sports with their friends,” she said in a statement.

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