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Gov. Spencer Cox says he won’t sign transgender sports bill as now written

‘These kids ... they’re just trying to stay alive,’ Utah governor says

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Cox said Thursday he would not sign the current version of a bill making its way through the Utah Legislature to ban transgender girls from participating in girls K-12 sports.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — An at-times emotional Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he would not sign the current version of the bill making its way through the Utah Legislature to ban transgender girls from participating in girls K-12 sports.

“I’m not in a place yet where I’m comfortable with the bill as it stands right now,” Cox told reporters during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah Thursday morning. “Those discussions are ongoing. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Cox then paused and teared up.

“These kids are ... they’re just trying to stay alive,” Cox said. “There’s a reason none of them are playing sports ... I just think there’s a better way. And I hope that there will be enough grace in our state to find a better solution.”

It’s not the first time Cox has positioned himself as an ally of the LGBT community. He went viral and made national headlines in 2016 after his heartfelt speech to honor the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, a shooting at a gay bar in Florida that left 49 dead. In that speech, Cox apologized for at times not being “kind” to fellow high school students of his that he later found out were gay.

“I apologize for getting a little emotional,” Cox told reporters Thursday. “When you spend time with these kids, it changes your heart in important ways, and so I want to try to improve that message and see if we can’t find a better way to work together.”

Cox called the transgender youth sports legislation “one of the most complicated and difficult bills” facing lawmakers in the 2021 session, and said “people on both sides of the issue are actually right.”

“There’s a lot of passion, a lot of fiery rhetoric, a lot of name-calling on both sides of the issue,” the governor said, adding “there are biological advantages with your birth gender. Those are biological facts, and nobody disputes that at all. It is also a fact that women’s sports has had a disadvantage for many, many years. We’ve gotten better but we still have a ways to go.”

Cox’s comments come the day after the House voted to approve Rep. Kera Birkeland’s bill following heated debate. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Cox said he believes Birkeland’s bill is coming from a “genuine place of concern” and comments “demonizing” her for the bill aren’t helpful. But he also urged people to reflect on the issue if they haven’t met or talked with transgender kids.

“If you have not spent time with transgender youth, then I would encourage you to pause on this issue,” Cox said.

The governor added that Utah has “gotten really good on the LGBQ side of things” but “we’re struggling on the T side of things. And we will work hard on this. I’m still working with the sponsor, we have a meeting today to see if we can figure out a Utah way to solve this issue.”

Asked about Cox’s comments, Birkeland told the Deseret News in a text message “I look forward to learning what changes or language the governor is hoping for.”

HB302 is adamantly opposed by groups including Equality Utah and Democrats, who argue it’s “needlessly (targeting) youth who are already marginalized and vulnerable to mental anguish and suicide.”

Cox also said he had “threatened to veto” another bill related to transgender issues: HB92 being sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City. Shipp’s bill would prohibit doctors from offering any gender reassignment treatment to minors.

The original version of that bill, Cox said, had “many, many flaws.” But he said the latest iteration of Shipp’s bill is “closer to what medical standards are now.”

“We had some conversations yesterday with Equality Utah and others on that very bill,” Cox said. “I had threatened to veto that bill before. ... So, again, we have to be really, really careful anytime government gets in between doctors and families and patients.”

Troy Williams, Equality Utah’s executive director, said his group met with Cox on Wednesday “to discuss the very real dangers inherent in these two bills.”

“We know he is a champion for LGBTQ youth and that he will consider all the issues thoughtfully,” he said. “We will continue to work with lawmakers to ensure that Utah’s LGBTQ youth can soar and thrive.”

Cox’s comments mean if HB302 has a chance of becoming Utah law, it needs changes unless he decides to allow it to become law without signing it. However, it’s possible the bill might run into some trouble in the Senate, where legislative leaders have hinted it could be altered.

“I do believe it has some support in the Senate,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters later Thursday. “But it may actually get altered so that the governor may sign it. I don’t know what will happen to it, but we’ll probably send it to a committee and take it through the process.”

Adams said there are “emotions on both sides” of the issue, and it puts lawmakers in a tough spot having to choose between being “compassionate” while addressing concerns of female athletes.

“I”m hearing from women athletes that are concerned about competing against those who maybe have capacity as men, I think they’re wondering how fair that is,” Adams said.

At the same time, Adams said, “we’ve prided ourselves in Utah in being compassionate and being considerate and trying to be inclusive.”

“And so it becomes very difficult when you have a piece of legislation like this,” Adams added. “So it’ll be very difficult to be able to be compassionate and inclusive and then also be considerate of those who have concerns about competing against perhaps male athletes.”