SALT LAKE CITY — After a Utah bill that would bar transgender athletes from competing on girls sports teams at public schools stalled in a Senate committee on Wednesday, LGBTQ advocates celebrated with hugs and tears.

“It will be back, because this is a national discussion. But for now, my trans kiddos still get their rights, they’re not set aside, they’re not othered,” said Sue Robbins, a transgender and intersex woman who works with Equality Utah.

Candice Metzler, executive director of the Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, called it a “reprieve” but noted the state still needs to continue conversations on the issue after the legislative session “so we can really find some solutions” to help transgender kids.

“Today, Utah has again demonstrated that when it comes to protecting all children, we are on the same team,” Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director, said in a statement.

“We have now had several meetings with (bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland). I do not see her as an enemy, nor even as a member of an opposing team. She is a fierce champion for girls sports. I hope that we will always match her passion as we advocate for LGBTQ kids,” Williams said, adding that he wants to work with Birkeland moving forward “to ensure fairness for all of Utah’s incredible student-athletes.”

In a prepared statement after the hearing, Birkeland, R-Morgan, said she was disappointed the bill did not advance but she trusts in the legislative process.

“This is a complex and sensitive issue and I appreciate the robust discussions I had with a broad group of stakeholders, colleagues, and constituents, and I thank all those who voiced their opinions. I will continue to stand up and speak out for past, current and future female athletes fighting for the opportunity to compete fairly. I am optimistic we can continue to work together to create policies that preserve female sports,” Birkeland said.

Bill stalls

HB302, titled Preserving Sports for Female Students, would require public schools to designate athletic activities by sex. As originally written, the bill would prohibit a student of the “male sex” from participating in athletic activities designated for female students. Schools could only be held legally responsible under the law if they knowingly and willingly violate it.

The House passed the bill last week after two fiery debates among lawmakers, athletes and LGBTQ advocates. Those who support the bill have argued for a fair playing field for those born female, while others have said it will discriminate against transgender youth. Gov. Spencer Cox has said he would not sign the bill as written, indicating changes would be needed before it might receive final passage.

Birkeland introduced a new version of the bill on Wednesday that would allow transgender youth to play on girls teams except when competing with teams from other schools. She said the bill changed with “a lot of insight” from the governor’s office.

“This bill was never about not including others, and I want to make that very clear. This bill is about preserving women’s sports,” Birkeland told members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

Under the bill, the state would take responsibility for lawsuits and hold schools and school districts harmless.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, talks about her bill HB302 at a House Education Committee meeting at the State Office Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The bill would bar transgender athletes at public schools to participate in girls sports. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Girls’ participation in sports makes them statistically more likely to be more successful in school, Birkeland said, and women have long fought for the ability to play sports.

She said she agrees with “inclusion in sports” but that it “cannot come at the cost of fairness.” Birkeland emphasized she wants to protect a “fair playing field” for girls.

But the bill received an icy reception from the Senate committee.

“Representative, I don’t really like this bill. This puts us in a really bad situation,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.

“The problem I have is that Title IX was for women’s sports, and I have a hard time with this bill because I have people I know who are trans — family members, friends of mine — who I desperately love. And yet I have this biological understanding of human development that throws that into stark contrast, and I don’t know how to reconcile the two,” Anderegg said.

He questioned whether “now is the time” for legislators to tackle the issue, although he said his “heart goes out to the women who find themselves at a biological disadvantage.”

Birkeland said she would be open to a study on the issue, but she wants the state to start the discussion now.

Does allowing transgender women to compete spell the end to women’s sports?
Should transgender girls play on girls sports teams? Utahns share opinions in new poll

Emotional debate

When the meeting opened for public comment, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said: “As a mother of a young daughter, as a woman in politics, I am a staunch advocate for girls and young women in every life path they pursue.”

She said the idea the bill could even the playing field for women is “misguided.”

“The pain, the exclusion, the insecurity (transgender youth) face is unlike anything most of us encountered through school or as adults,” Mendenhall said.

Rob Dern, a father of a transgender girl and teacher, said: “I am a big believer in the importance of young people participating in athletic teams.”

He said he wants his daughter to experience the benefits from playing on a team, and fears the bill would take them away from it.

Nicholeen Peck, with the Worldwide Organization for Women, said that she played high school sports and noted that “the girls cannot block like the boys. We just can’t jump it. We can’t. That’s just how it is.”

Kate Charipar, associate athletics director for compliance at the University of Utah, said the bill “will instigate a relocation of events away from the state of Utah.”

Title IX requires that no students be excluded from an activity based on sex, including sexual identity, Charipar noted.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said “no amount of hormone therapy” can undo genetic athletic advantages for those born male.

Carrie Butler, a mom of a transgender son, said he is a black belt in karate and “has found great joy and great satisfaction in being able to participate in the sports that he plays, and he’s very fortunate that his sports are not gendered sports.”

“It is so critical that our kids are allowed to feel included,” Butler said.

Senate Rules Chairman Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, praised Birkeland for taking on the challenge despite “taking a beating” during public comment. He suggested lawmakers instead consider the issue in an interim committee.

The committee ended the meeting without taking a vote on the bill, meaning it likely won’t make it to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the session March 5.