Opinion: Why I sponsored the bill on transgender girls in high school sports
While I am truly passionate about preserving and protecting girls sports, I also care about our transgender youth. I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively to find opportunities for our transgender youth that do not take away opportunities for our girls
Historically, women have been forced to take a back-row seat when it comes to athletic participation and competition.
In 1896, during the first modern Olympic Games, a Greek woman unofficially competed in the marathon event, and while not allowed to enter the stadium, ran around its outskirts to complete the course.
During World War II, women took to the baseball field, that is until the men returned home from overseas and took back the spotlight. As late as 1967, Boston Marathon officials declared women physiologically incapable of running 26.2 miles.
Despite the opinion of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, that athletic competition with females would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and improper,” over time, courageous women spoke out and demonstrated that their athletic abilities were just as worthy of recognition as their male counterparts.
Because those who came before us paved the way, we can participate, compete and play the sports we’ve all come to know and love.
As an athlete, coach, referee and now mother of female athletes, I wanted to ensure that my daughters had the opportunity to learn the value of teamwork, dedication and commitment, and that they had a level playing field that has been in place since Title IX was implemented in 1972.
Today we face a future where those hard-fought gains for equality are cast aside, where women are left as spectators in their own sports. As transgender athletes began to compete, girls were forced to compete with people who held a biological advantage that is not erased with any degree of transition procedures.
Two years ago, I set out to change this. From the outset, it was important to me that we find a solution that would protect the integrity of girls sports without taking vindictive measures against student-athletes who already face significant challenges.
During the 2021 general legislative session, I ran HB302, which allowed only biological girls to compete in girls sports. After much debate, I decided to push pause. Over the past year, I sought out as much input as possible and worked with a broad group of stakeholders to find the best path forward. We met several times each month with discussions often lasting several hours.
We examined the issue from every angle. I put my heart into truly understanding the challenges facing Utah’s transgender youth. I learned a great deal and hoped that perspective influenced the legislation.
The bill that passed this session, HB11, Student Eligibility in Athletic Activities, builds upon last year’s debate and discussion by adding another element. Should the courts rule against the statute allowing only biological girls to play girls sports, Utah has another policy in place: A commission to evaluate the physical abilities of a transgender athlete to determine if they have an unfair, physical advantage. This policy protects our female athletes while also creating a pathway for inclusion.
But you rarely heard about that in the aftermath of the session as political narratives took over.
In his veto letter, Gov. Spencer Cox commented that the process was rushed, likely referring to the amendment added by the Senate on the final night of the session. Unfortunately, he failed to mention that over the course of the last 15 months, he and his team were notably absent from stakeholder discussions. Despite an open invitation, the governor met only twice with me regarding this issue, while, by comparison, I held more than 100 meetings with advocates, athletes, representatives of the transgender community and constituents on this issue.
Riding in to act the hero for a legion of Twitter followers isn’t leadership — it’s Monday morning quarterbacking.
The governor also pointed out that there are four transgender student-athletes in Utah today. But the legislation isn’t solely about one side of the equation. My concern, and that of many Utahns, is for the 35,000 girls who put in the work and deserve to participate in school athletics with an opportunity to win.
Unfortunately, anytime we get into a politically charged debate, the easy route is to bifurcate the issue — you either support girls sports and hate transgender youth, or you support transgender youth and hate girls sports. That is simply not the case. While I am truly passionate about preserving and protecting girls sports, I also care about our transgender youth. I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively to find opportunities for our transgender youth that do not take away opportunities for our girls.
It has been disappointing, yet not surprising, that the side of this debate that preaches kindness, acceptance and understanding evidently has no issue with sending me and my family death threats, leaving profanity-laced voicemails, and sending harassing text messages, social media posts and emails.
It’s no wonder more female athletes aren’t speaking up. By doing so, they risk becoming targets themselves. I stand for that silent majority.
To the women and girls — I see you and I hear you. I will continue to advocate, speak up and fight for your opportunities to compete on an even playing field. Good policy is made by considering a variety of viewpoints and working to find the right solution. Over the past two years, I have made every effort to find a balanced and reasonable solution to a tough and divisive issue and am convinced Utah has taken the right step forward.
Rep. Kera Birkeland represents District 53 in the Utah House of Representatives, covering Daggett, Duchesne, Morgan, Rich and Summit counties.