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Opinion: A winning student athlete had her gender identity questioned. What is Utah’s policy going forward?

Lawmakers forced a last-minute ban on female transgender athletes through, with a trigger clause creating a commission in case a judge ruled the ban illegal. They could have saved a lot of grief by simply creating the commission in the first place

SHARE Opinion: A winning student athlete had her gender identity questioned. What is Utah’s policy going forward?
A sticker opposing a transgender bill at the Utah Legislature is pictured.

A woman wearing a sticker opposing a transgender girls sports bill sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, stands in a hallway after a hearing on the bill before the Utah Legislature’s House Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. A judge has now temporarily halted enforcement of that law.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When it comes to dealing with the issue of transgender girls trying to compete in high school sports, answers aren’t clear. What is clear, however, is what not to do.

The parents of two high school athletes did nothing to elevate human dignity or find solutions when they demanded an investigation into an athlete who defeated their own daughters in a state-level high school sports competition, as was recently reported in the Deseret News. In this case, the school investigated the records of the winning student dating back to kindergarten to show that she had always identified as a female.

We agree with Gov. Spencer Cox, who said of this case, “We’re living in this world where we’ve become sore losers and, you know, we’re looking for any reason to figure out why our kid lost.”

But another clearly wrong way to deal with this was how the Utah Legislature, in the closing moments of the 2022 session, passed a surprise bill, with no public comment, that banned competition by female transgender athletes outright.

As we noted at the time, the bill contained a trigger mechanism that would create a “school activity eligibility commission” should a lawsuit succeed in challenging its legality. Cox originally vetoed the bill. Senate President Stuart Adams urged him not to do so because, he said, it likely would be overturned by the courts, which would set in motion the commission. This, in turn, would establish rules to govern how to proceed with transgender student athletes.

All of that now has come to pass. Lawmakers overrode Cox’s veto, a judge has temporarily halted enforcement of the ban and the commission is being assembled.

It would have been far more humane, and less of a time waster, for lawmakers to have simply created the commission in the first place. Lawmakers had been negotiating with LGBTQ advocates and other stakeholders before the last-minute decision to pass an outright ban.

According to the statute, the commission will include a medical data statistician, a physician with expertise in gender identity health care, a sports physiologist, a mental health professional, a college-level athletic trainer, a representative of an athletic association and a coach or official representing the sport in question on a case-by-case basis. The governor, Senate president and speaker of the House are responsible for appointing various of these members.

Many Republican lawmakers have praised the idea of the commission. Adams said it is “a first-of-its-kind solution, a data-driven commission that will help ensure female athletes can continue to compete in a fair environment.”

We hope this is proven true. 

Utah, of course, is not the only state or entity dealing with this issue. The NCAA recently scuttled a policy that required female transgender athletes to undergo a year of testosterone suppression treatments before being allowed to compete. The new policy turns the decision over to the governing bodies of each separate NCAA sport, a policy critics say will lead to confusion and inequities. 

We hope Utah’s new commission will result in clearer guidelines that handle each case with fairness and dignity, understanding that each case concerns a human being. 

Such issues are not easily decided, but the commission approach should have been lawmakers’ first solution, not one imposed on the state by a judge.