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Utah bill would appoint commission to decide if transgender kids can play sports

Feb 14, 2022, 3:15 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 4:27 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A new Utah bill would require transgender students who want to play on the school sports teams of their choice to receive permission from a commission.

HB11 prompted some debate during its first legislative hearing on Monday about whether it would go too far or not do enough to promote fairness in sports.

“Everything about this is geared to this child wanting to play in this sport,” bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said during the House Health and Human Services Committee meeting.

Last year, Birkeland sponsored a bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in Utah high school sports. That bill failed in a Senate committee after passing the House after Gov. Spencer Cox indicated he would not sign it.

Under the current version of the bill, a transgender athlete would upload their birth certificate and select the sport they want to play. If the gender on their birth certificate does not match the sport they want to play, a commission with a doctor, sports physiologist, university level athletic trainer, coach and other experts would decide whether they can play on that team.

The bill received a 6-3 recommendation along party lines, with Republicans supporting it, which means it will move to the full House for a vote.

When asked whether the Senate might be more receptive to it this year, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters later Monday he hopes his colleagues will give it “close scrutiny” but consider passing it.

“I think it’s constitutional; I think it probably gets us into a very fair process,” Adams said.

Based on his understanding of the bill, Adams said the legislative-appointed commission would be charged with developing a “baseline” or “bell curve” based on data for athletes of a particular age to fit into to play a sport. That baseline would be used to determine if a student can play on a certain team, Adams said.

Ensuring students don’t have ‘competitive advantage’

After last year’s bill failed to pass, Birkeland continued to work on the issue and brought a compromise bill to an interim committee in November. That bill would have codified the current Utah High School Activities Association policy, which allows transgender students to play if they have changed their birth certificate and are taking hormone treatment.

Birkeland said there were a lot of issues with that previous bill, however, and she decided not to run it as written. But a few weeks ago, she said several of her colleagues urged her to move the issue forward.

“And so I began working on this commission — the idea of a commission,” Birkeland said. “The whole point of this commission is to ensure that there’s no material competitive advantage, and that we’re keeping children safe.”

She said she believes she “threaded a very fine needle,” to preserve women’s sports and inclusion. She said with the bill would ensure Utah will not experience a “Lia Thomas” situation, referencing a swimmer who has prompted more debate about transgender women in sports.

“This is happening in our state, but it’s not something that we need to sensationalize,” Birkeland said, adding that transgender girls in Utah aren’t “dominating” in their sports like Thomas.

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, questioned what would happen if a transgender student has already changed the gender on their birth certificate.

Birkeland said there’s a section in the bill that says if someone has changed their birth certificate, they will still need to go through the commission.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, asked if students who don’t want to go through the commission could choose not to upload their birth certificates. Birkeland said all students who play sports already are required to upload a copy of their birth certificate.

During the meeting, public comments against the bill were limited to four or five people, despite more there to speak.

Troy Williams, director of Equality Utah, also speaking on behalf of the ACLU, noted that last year the state saw “tense debates” on the issue. Birkeland had reached out to advocates after the session, Williams said. He thanked lawmakers for engaging with stakeholders in the process.

“We’re hoping to find a balance and a new path, one that threads the needle between the values that we all hold,” Williams said.

The current draft of the bill reflects some feedback from LGBTQ advocates, but they still have some concerns, he said, adding that they’ve shared those concerns with Birkeland.

“We are not going to walk away from the table, we’re going to remain in discussions, we’re going to focus on finding areas of common ground,” Williams said, calling the disagreements “real” but “not insurmountable.”

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, noted Birkeland’s extensive work on the bill. Pierucci said she believes last year’s bill could potentially pass this year and asked why Williams opposes the new one, as it is not an all-out “ban.”

Williams said advocates do not want a commission appointed by elected officials. “We see that could be weighted against transgender kids,” he said.

Gayle Ruzicka, with Utah Eagle Forum, said at church on Sunday she was “looking around at the boys” and noted they are all different sizes.

“So one of the questions I have is what happens when these boys have been through their commission and because of their size and shape and all these other things, they’re able to be on the team?” Ruzicka asked.

As the transgender girls grow, Ruzicka questioned whether there will still be a level playing field. She said she believes there will be issues in the future with the bill, indicating support for last year’s bill.

Dr. Jennifer Plumb, a pediatrician and emergency room doctor, said her child would qualify for the commission. Plumb asked for her daughter’s insight on the bill, and she said if the goal is to keep children off the field, “it’s working.”

Plumb said kids are scared a commission would perform a “gender check” on them.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, called the bill “a good effort,” and praised Birkeland for working with stakeholders over the last year “to come up with a solution to help broaden participation in student athletics while at the same time preserving safety of athletes and also preserving the levels of competition.”

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Utah bill would appoint commission to decide if transgender kids can play sports