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Disapproval follows Utah lawmakers’ decision to ban transgender athletes from prep sports

Mar 25, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: 7:22 pm

Utah State Capitol...

This photo shows the Utah State Capitol in March, 2022. The Utah legislative session ended on a fiery note as lawmakers approved a bill that critics say unfairly targets an elected official. (Kira Hoffelmeyer, KSL Radio)

(Kira Hoffelmeyer, KSL Radio)

SALT LAKE CITY — Criticism was swift over Utah’s lawmaking decisions Friday, after Utah’s House and Senate overturned a veto on HB11  that will ban one current and all hopeful transgender students from participating in girls sports.

The lawmaker’s move Friday comes amid a debate across the U.S. over transgender issues, including sports and after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the law, citing financial concerns but especially the damage he believed it would do to transgender children and their families. Friday’s vote flipped Republican votes that were previously against the bill in the final hours of Utah’s 2022 Legislative session.

Five votes in the Senate and 10 in the House changed their votes. With the override, Utah becomes one of a dozen states wish such a ban.

Political leaders in deeply conservative and Republican state say the ban was needed to protect girls sports. Critics were vocal, sending out statements immediately. Supporters of the bill gathered outside the Capitol to show support and calling for protection of girls sports.

One high-profile statement against the measure came from the Utah Jazz, owned by Utahn Ryan Smith who had taken to Twitter previously to call the bill “rushed, flawed and said “it won’t hold up over time. I’m hopeful we can find a better way.” Another partial owner of the team, former NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, has a transgender daughter. Salt Lake City is scheduled to hold the NBA’s All-Star Game in 2023.

Some signaled that the bill could prompt the league to move the game, as it has done previously in other states that passed transgender laws. A spokesman for the NBA said the league is working closely with the Jazz.

In a press conference after the special session co-sponsor Sen. Curtis Bramble reacted with emotion to a media question about the possible loss of the game and said the state shouldn’t make laws based on financial considerations. Rep. Kera Birkeland sponsored the bill and said it was purely to protect girls sports.

The Jazz were far from the only critical voice. It said in its short statement:

The Utah Jazz oppose discriminatory legislation. We are committed to our values of inclusivity, mutual respect, and fair play. Beyond basketball, we hope for an equitable solution that shows love and compassion for all our youth.

Cox called a special session after the one called by legislative leaders to address financial concerns, especially to protect the Utah High School Activities Association from what are considered inevitable lawsuits. He said the session was to fix “at least one flaw in the bill.”

“I remain hopeful that we will continue to work toward a more inclusive, fair and compassionate policy during the interim,” Cox said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall took to Twitter to speak to Utah’s transgender kids. She said:

I’m sorry this is happening to you and some of our leaders seem intent on going out of their way to persecute and punish you just for being who you are. They do not speak for all of us. You are perfect as you are. You are loved. I stand with you.

She said in another Tweet: “This is decidedly not “The Utah Way” and I’m ashamed at the way some of our state’s leaders are playing politics with children’s lives.”

UHSAA Handbook on transgender participation by LarryDCurtis on Scribd

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson also condemned the Friday’s vote. She wrote:

This is a sad day for all of Utah. Today, certain legislators chose to be unnecessarily cruel to children to pick up political points and follow national talking points. I echo Governor Cox’s shock that this much anger and fear has been directed at four students. But I know the pain extends beyond those four students and I feel so deeply for all the transgender and LGBTQ+ students in our state. To all of you, I hope you know that you are loved and that you deserve better.

To the legislators who just passed this cruel legislation: I ask you to reconsider your actions, not just for our children, but for the economic impact this will have in our state. In Salt Lake County facilities alone, the economic impact has the potential to reach millions, and the loss of events in our state will harm the bottom lines of local businesses, restaurants, and hotels. Most importantly, your actions have sent a signal at a crucial time that we are not a welcoming community. If you truly care about women’s sports, please address the real threats: sexual assault and harassment, funding, and a lack of women in leadership.

Our county, our children, and our state deserves better.

The American Civil Liberties Union indicated it will support litigation against the law.

We are deeply disappointed and saddened at today’s votes by the Utah Legislature to discriminate against transgender youth to exclude them from participating fully on sports teams.

Litigation to stop H.B. 11 from taking effect is now both necessary and inevitable to ensure Constitutional promises of equal protection to all Utahns.

Before Friday’s vote, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill crafted an open letter to senators and representatives of the county regarding the veto override. He said adverse childhood experiences have a massive impact on future criminal offenses and victimization, including the risk factors of “youth with few or no friends and families isolated from the communities.”

He went on to write:

In short, providing more opportunities for extracurricular activities decreases criminal behavior and victimization. However, isolating children from these activities increases their risk now and later in life.

While HB11, if it becomes law, will exclude only one transgender girl currently playing high school sports in Utah, the isolating effect of the bill is much broader. Transgender children across Utah are looking to the legislature to answer a more fundamental question: Do I belong here? The inevitable lawsuits and likely reversal of HB11 in the courts won’t undo the harm that the legislature will cause today if it overrides Governor Cox’s veto. Not to mention wasted tax dollars, loss of economic opportunity, and an invasion on the personal choices of the family all resulting in bad public policy. Please do not join in sending that harmful message to our children.

He urged further discussion on the issues of gender and fair play in sports.

Utah House Democrats and Utah Senate Democrats also released statements. House Democrats were critical not only of the outcome but of the political motivations involved. It said the bill is designed to score political points at the expense of kids who just want to play sports and said it causes nothing but undue harm to transgender girls and boys, “when what they really deserve is support reassurance, and love.”

It further stated:

The Utah High School Activities Association already has a procedure in place to address these very rare cases.  As Gov. Cox said in his letter explaining his veto, out of 75,000 high school kids participating in high school sports in Utah, only 4 are transgender, and only one transgender student plays girls’ sports.  Everyone deserves to have the legislature fighting for fairness for them, whether it is 4 transgender girls participating in sports, or 400.

This is a culture war battle designed to exploit people’s fears and misunderstandings about transgender people in this election year.   Is this really the Utah Way? Just let the kids play.

Senate Democrats said they are entirely disheartened by the actions of the override. They said they voted against HB11 and HB3001 in the special session. It addressed the liability concerns about the legislation. The Senate Democrats further stated:

H.B. 11 is nothing but an unconstitutional attack on the individual rights of children. Triggering costly legal battles is irresponsible lawmaking, wasting taxpayer dollars and damaging the public’s confidence in the legislative process. Most importantly, the consequences our children will face because of H.B. 11—including severe impacts to mental and emotional health—is deeply troubling and should alarm all Utahns.

Utah’s professional soccer team Real Salt Lake also released a statement saying it was opposed to the new law. It said:

Real Salt Lake stands opposed to legislating discrimination. Our Club remains steadfastly committed to the ‘Soccer for ALL’ tenets of inclusion, respect and fair play. Beyond the field, we always strive for equitable solutions that demonstrate love and compassion for all, especially the youth in our community

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Disapproval follows Utah lawmakers’ decision to ban transgender athletes from prep sports