SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed a ban on transgender students playing girls’ sports on Tuesday, becoming the second Republican governor to overrule state lawmakers who have taken on youth sports in a broader culture war over how Americans view gender and sexuality.
Cox joins Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who vetoed a statewide ban on Monday. Holcomb said Indiana’s Legislature had not demonstrated that transgender kids had undermined fairness in sports.
“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,” Cox wrote in a letter to Utah legislative leaders.
The vetoes come as Cox and Holcomb’s counterparts in nearly a dozen conservative-leaning states have enacted similar legislation and politicians have honed in on transgender kids in sports as a campaign issue in states ranging from Missouri to Pennsylvania.
In Utah, minutes after the veto, legislative leaders announced they would convene lawmakers on Friday to further consider the bill and discuss overriding the veto. To succeed, they’ll need support from two-thirds of lawmakers, which means they’ll have to sway some who voted against the ban in the final hours before the Statehouse adjourned for the year.
“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,” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams said in a statement.
The issue was one of the most contentious of the year in a state where most lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and respectful politics are prized as “The Utah Way.” Deeply conservative leaders and LGBTQ advocates have brokered compromises to advance rights and protections in the past. But not this time.
There are four transgender players out of 85,000 who are competing in school sports after being ruled eligible by the state’s high school athletic association. There are no public concerns about competitive advantages. Only one competes in girls’ sports.
“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,” Cox said in the letter explaining his veto, in which he cited suicide rates for transgender youth. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”
Banning transgender kids from competition, their advocates argue, would have little impact on sports but would send a wider, deeply painful message to already vulnerable kids that they don’t belong in an important piece of American school culture.
But supporters of a ban argue, amid growing transgender visibility, more players could soon be in girls leagues around the country and eventually dominate and change the nature of girls sports.
In Utah, the ban was introduced less than four hours before lawmakers were set to adjourn for the year, upending a year of negotiations over alternative requirements framed as a compromise. Those requirements would have allowed transgender kids to play after getting approval from a government-appointed commission. Gov. Spencer Cox was on board, but the measure struggled to win support from social conservatives or LGBTQ advocates.
Sue Robbins, who serves on the Equality Utah Transgender Advisory Council, said the last-minute change came as a blow. “We were trying to find a middle ground,” she said. “Then all of a sudden this comes about … it was kind of crushing.”
For one Utah woman whose 13-year-old transgender child loves sports, it was brutal. “I still don’t think they understand what it means and how much those kids have to overcome, to even get to the point of competing,” said the mother, who The Associated Press agreed not to name to avoid identifying her daughter.
The late change destroyed what faith she had in the legislative process. “I was appalled … This is probably where they wanted to be all along and just played the game.”
The governor vowing to veto the ban made her daughter “so happy,” she said. “One day, we need to meet him.”
On the final night of the legislative session, Cox became red and his voice shook as he spoke about the effect lawmakers’ proposal could have on transgender youth, referencing the demographic’s disproportionately high suicide rates and the small number of trans players participating in Utah.
“To go from all of this work, all of this discussion and all of these negotiations to get to a point that was uncomfortable for everyone but was a path forward and really represented the best of Utah, to now, on the last night of the session, out of nowhere, getting a complete ban that nobody’s talked to me about is incredibly disappointing,” he said minutes after lawmakers passed the ban.
He also later said the bill would only “invite a lawsuit” that would bankrupt the state’s high-school athletics governing body.
Lawmakers may attempt to insulate schools and the association from lawsuits as part of their attempt to override Cox‘s veto.
The sponsor of the legislation, Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, said she once preferred a commission but eventually came around to social conservatives’ view that a ban was more clear-cut, especially because the transgender community shuddered at the idea of subjecting a small subset of kids to review and scrutiny.
The nature of the issue, she said, unfortunately doesn’t lend itself to compromises. “We’ve just kind of furthered the culture war on this issue. I’m not happy about that. I wanted to believe that a lot of progress was made,” she said about attempts to find middle ground. “I think on these types of issues, it’s next to impossible to do it.”
Eleven states have enacted laws banning transgender girls from playing in leagues corresponding with their gender identity - Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
Lawmakers in at least 12 other states are considering some form of a ban on transgender student-athletes in youth sports, according to a tally from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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