As he promised, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has vetoed a bill banning transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

Cox, who has been an outspoken LGBTQ ally and made an emotional promise immediately after the bill passed to veto it as soon as it landed on his desk, issued a lengthy, five-page veto letter on Tuesday explaining his decision.

In a prepared statement posted on Twitter, Cox said he believes in “fairness and protecting the integrity of women’s sports” but HB11 has “several fundamental flaws.” The highly controversial bill was altered in the final hours of the Legislature’s 2022 session to fully ban transgender girls from competing in high school sports.

Utah Legislature passes last-minute ban on transgender female athletes; Gov. says he'll veto

“There was no public input and this lack of time and input has serious legal and financial implications as well,” Cox said. “I believe in process and this was a poor process.”

Why Utah Gov. Cox vetoed transgender sports ban

Cox said the bill provides no financial protection and it “explicitly invites a lawsuit,” meaning it would likely “bankrupt the Utah High School Athletic Association and result in millions of dollars in legal fees for local school districts.”

The governor also said he was “encouraged” when legislators and LGBTQ advocates began working together on a compromise.

“No other state has done this, and we hoped that Utah could be the first,” Cox said. “Unfortunately, that compromise fell apart in the 11th hour of the session.”

The governor added: “I am not an expert on transgenderism. I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion.”

In his veto letter, Cox said five numbers have “most impacted” his decision to veto. He listed them as such:

  • Seventy-five thousand high school kids participate in high school sports in Utah.
  • Four transgender kids play in high school sports in Utah.
  • One transgender student plays girls sports.
  • Eighty-six percent of trans youth report suicidality.
  • Fifty-six percent of trans youth have attempted suicide.

“Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about,” Cox said in his veto letter. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day.

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox continued. “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.”

Cox said that’s why he decided to veto, even though “politically it would be much easier and better for me to simply sign the bill.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, thanked Cox for his veto.

“This is what moral courage looks like,” Williams tweeted.

When asked about Cox’s veto letter and his concern for Utah’s four transgender youth playing in high school sports, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told reporters in an online news conference later Tuesday he’d characterize the issue differently than the governor.

“This is not directed at any one or any specific individuals,” Wilson said. “This is directed at preserving girls sports, their safety and competitiveness.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, told reporters HB11 isn’t about those four transgender kids.

“This is not about a number at all,” she said. “This is about a fundamental belief that you either have or you don’t, that women’s sports need to be preserved for those that are biologically born and identify as female.”

Birkeland said Utah is a “great state of supporting everyone,” and in the last two decades “we’ve shown great progress in being kind and being compassionate” and bringing people together. If lawmakers can move forward with HB11, “we can actually start working together and finding opportunities for these transgender youth that doesn’t take away opportunities for girls.”

“That should be our common goal,” she said. “It should be about finding places for transgender youth to excel and thrive while still providing and preserving opportunities for girls to excel and thrive.”

What’s happening in other states?

Cox’s veto comes the day after another Republican governor, in Indiana, vetoed a bill banning transgender females from participating in girls school sports.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signaled his support for the bill last month, but said in his veto letter that the legislation “falls short” of providing a consistent statewide policy for what he called “fairness in K-12 sports.”

Holcomb’s veto comes after the bill faced intense opposition before being approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature that embraced what’s become a conservative cause across the country.

In Indiana, lawmakers can override the governor’s veto with simple majorities in both the House and Senate. A veto override vote could happen as soon as May 24, which Indiana’s legislative leaders have scheduled as a tentative one-day meeting.

Twelve Republican-led states have adopted such laws that political observers describe as a classic “wedge issue” to motivate conservative supporters after the governors in Iowa and South Dakota signed their bans in recent weeks.

Democrats argued Republican lawmakers were following a national conservative “culture war” with the transgender girls sports ban.

Utah lawmakers to override veto on Friday

In Utah, even before Cox’s veto, lawmakers were gearing up for a veto override session. The bill didn’t clear the Utah Legislature on a veto-proof majority, but if enough lawmakers switch their votes, that could lead to an override.

Enough lawmakers in the House and Senate are signaling their support for an override, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, told the Deseret News. He said it wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers have overridden a veto when initially the margin for passage was smaller than the two-thirds majority required for an override.

“If the governor vetoes, the dynamics change,” Bramble said. “And I think that’s the case here. I believe that there will be the votes in both the House and Senate to override the veto.”

Sure enough, soon after Cox’s veto, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, called the veto override session for Friday.

“While Gov. Cox and I disagree on this bill, I respect the legislative process. We have been listening to our constituents, talking with experts, and we feel it’s important to make decisions now that protect athletes and ensure women are not edged out of their sport,” Adams said in a prepared statement.

“Creating a safe and fair environment for athletes takes work. We care deeply for all students, but we can not ignore the scientific facts that biological boys are built differently than girls. Doing nothing is taking a step backward for women. Finding a solution to this complicated issue is necessary to maintain fair competition now and in the future,” Adams said.

Wilson said lawmakers and Birkeland have “worked tirelessly for more than a year to find the best way to approach a complex issue.”

“I anticipate that we will have sufficient votes to override the veto,” Wilson said. “Ultimately, the Legislature recognizes the value of girls athletics and our members want to ensure girls have the level playing field to compete that was created by Title IX.” 

Birkeland, in a prepared statement issued after Cox’s veto, said although she’s “disappointed” in the veto, “I’m hopeful that the Legislature will continue its efforts to protect the integrity of women’s sports.”

“High school girls across the state have expressed their concerns, and we owe it to them to listen. Sports are their opportunity to overcome obstacles and break barriers. But in order to do that, they need a fair playing field,” Birkeland said.

What about legal liability?

Along with Democrats, several Republican lawmakers voted against HB11, some expressing concern about it leaving school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association vulnerable to expensive lawsuits.

Fully anticipating the override, Cox on Tuesday also called a special session for Friday at 2 p.m. to consider “financial and legal issues” regarding HB11. After the override, lawmakers will have to convene in a separate, special session to pass a new bill to make those changes.

For that special session, Bramble said lawmakers are discussing including a fiscal note in the $500,000 range for legal protections.

“Based on discussions I’ve had, I believe there’s broad agreement that we should fix the liability issue, and we’re hoping that the governor will call us into session to do it,” Bramble said.

Utah’s place in the national debate

Opponents of both Indiana’s and Utah’s transgender sports bans argue it’s a bigoted and discriminatory act for a problem that doesn’t exist. Republican supporters say it’s needed to protect the integrity and safety of female sports.

Why Utah Senate president says Gov. Cox shouldn’t veto ban on transgender athletes

Earlier this month, Adams said Cox shouldn’t veto the bill because he expects the ban to be overturned anyway, at which point the commission lawmakers originally tried to negotiate with the governor, LGBTQ advocates and other stakeholders would be created.

Bramble on Tuesday also made that point, adding lawmakers anticipate “as has happened in other states, the ban will likely be enjoined by the courts.” When that happens, HB11 is structured in a way that “the fallback would be the commission and we would be back to a rational basis rather than just an outright ban.”

Utah Democrats, including House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers should have created the commission, as was negotiated, and not passed an all-out ban.

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“What we got instead,” King said during a legislative panel discussion earlier this month, “was a culture war bill that was extraordinarily divisive and extraordinarily hurtful to a vulnerable — a very vulnerable — and marginalized population.”

Bramble said the issue is a “challenge” not just for Utah but states across the nation. He said the issue is becoming increasingly prominent, pointing specifically to University of Pennsylvania’s swimmer Lia Thomas.

“This is going to be a challenge,” Bramble said. “And it’s a challenge because no matter how we legislate, biologic males are built different than biologic females in terms of muscle mass, bone density, lung capacity, all of those physiologic attributes that give rise to one’s ability to compete.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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