ST. GEORGE — The Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted to adjourn Wednesday night before voting on a controversial bill impacting transgender athletes, likely killing the bill with just over a week remaining in the legislative session.
The last item on Wednesday’s agenda, the committee heard arguments for nearly an hour on Preserving Sports for Female Students, HB 302, before moving to adjourn the meeting without a vote. The move stalls the bill in the committee before the conclusion of the legislative session on March 5. The bill originally intended to bar transgender girls from participating in interscholastic sports designated for females at birth through the collegiate level. It has been whittled down through revisions as opposition mounted, citing discrimination and mental health issues, in addition to overall constitutionality. The committee moving on from the bill was heralded by trans rights advocates.
“The decision by the committee is good for young people in Utah because students benefit when we set the expectation and example that all children and youth deserve to be included in their schools,” Candice Miller, executive director for Transgender Education Advocates of Utah said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, has touted the bill throughout the legislative process as a fight for equality for cis females. Birkeland believes that transitioned females hold an unfair advantage in girls and women’s sports over their cisgender counterparts and that excluding transgender girls from competition is the best way to ensure fairness.
Kirkeland’s third substitution introduced to the committee had been pared down from the original. It had removed collegiate athletics from the restrictions and allowed any person, regardless of gender, wanting the chance to participate in team practices and activities the ability to do so. But it still barred transgender girls from taking the court, mat, field or any other sporting ground against an interscholastic opponent.
“While I agree with inclusion in sports …. I believe inclusion cannot come at the cost of fairness,” Birkeland told the committee.
Opponents of the bill say the need for equality and protection of the mental wellbeing of trans children is more important than the competitive results. They argue that prohibiting kids from participating with the gender they identify with is discriminatory and can cause lasting mental health damage.
Some argue that the idea of transgender athletes dominating in female sports is exaggerated. Sue Robbins from Equality Utah told the committee that hormone therapy policies currently in place means transgender girls are “not only not dominant, but they are vastly underrepresented.”
The bill saw passion from both sides, leaving an undecided middle ground for many, even on the committee. Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-District 13, grappled with what he said are undeniable biological differences and creating an inclusive environment, going so far as telling Birkeland, “I hate your bill.”
“I’m really struggling to figure out how to balance the needs of some of these kids who find themselves in life-threatening depression, suicidal ideation vs. these young women who didn’t do anything wrong,” Anderegg said.
With no answer coming apparent by the end of public input, Sen. David Buxton, R-District 20, commended Birkeland for “championing a cause of this magnitude,” before acknowledging constitutionality issues and advising her to seek help from her leadership to further study the issue. After, Buxton motioned to move to the next item on the agenda.
While it appears the bill will not advance in this session, it does not rule out the 2022 one.
“This is a complex and sensitive issue and I appreciate the robust discussions I had with a broad group of stakeholders, colleagues, and constituents,” Birkeland said in a statement. “I will continue to stand up and speak out for past, current, and future female athletes fighting for the opportunity to compete fairly.”
Similar bills are making their way through legislation in Tennessee and Montana. Idaho is the only state to have ratified a bill of this nature, but it is currently blocked in federal court pending a lawsuit.
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