Utah is advancing legislation that would bar transgender female athletes from participating in girls' and women's school sports, but Republican Gov. Spencer Cox says he won't sign the current version of the bill into law.
"I'm not in a place yet where I'm comfortable with the bill as it stands right now," Cox said Thursday at his monthly news conference with PBS Utah. "Those discussions are ongoing. We still have a lot of work to do."
He choked up talking about trans youth. "These kids are ... they're just trying to stay alive," he said. "There's a reason none of them are playing sports. And so ... I just think there's a better way. And I hope there will be enough grace in our state to find a better solution. I don't understand all of this. I don't. But I'm trying to understand more. I'm trying to listen and learn and, again, trying to help kids figure out who they are and keep them alive."
"I apologize for getting a little emotional," he continued. "But when you spend time with these kids, it changes your heart in important ways. And so I want to try to improve that message and see if we can't find a better way to work together."
The Utah House of Representatives Wednesday approved House Bill 302, titled Preserving Sports for Female Students, by a vote of 50-23, largely along party lines -- Republicans for, Democrats against, the Deseret News reports. It now goes to the Senate. It would require Utah public schools to designate sports by gender and prohibit students "of the male sex" from activities designated for females.
Its supporters as well as those backing similar legislation in other states contend that trans girls have an inherent and unfair advantage over cisgender girls. However, many activists and scientists dispute this, saying there are many factors -- training, body size, and more -- that could give either a trans or a nontrans athlete an advantage.
Also, there are very few trans athletes, male or female, competing at any level, and there has never been an out trans Olympic champion, although trans athletes have been allowed to participate for several years. The Utah bill's sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, has admitted she isn't aware of any trans girls or women seeking to play on female teams in the state.
There are 48 anti-transgender bills pending in state legislatures around the nation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most are directed at either participation in school sports or gender-confirming health care.
"These bills are not addressing any real problem, and they're not being requested by constituents," says an HRC press release. "Rather, this effort is being driven by national far-right organizations attempting to score political points by sowing fear and hate."
For instance, the first bill to be passed by a legislative chamber this year, Montana's so-called Save Women's Sports Act (HB 112), was written by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ+ legal nonprofit designated by Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. That bill would bar transgender student-athletes from competing on the teams comporting with their gender identity; it was passed by the Montana House in January and is pending in the Senate.
North Dakota and Mississippi have also advanced bills that would prevent trans athletes from competing alongside their cisgender peers, with North Dakota's House and Mississippi's Senate approving them. They remain under consideration in the respective states' other chambers.
The only state where such a ban has become law is Idaho, but it is the subject of a court battle, and a federal judge has blocked it from taking effect while the case is heard.
In Utah, Cox, who took office this year after having been a state representative and lieutenant governor, "has long molded himself as a conservative ally of the LGBTQ community and received national attention for a speech he gave in 2016 after the massacre at Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar and dance club in Orlando, Fla., left 49 dead," The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
In 2019 he worked with then-Gov. Gary Herbert on a regulation classifying the use of conversion therapy on minors "unprofessional conduct" by licensed therapists. A step taken after legislation on the matter failed, the regulation took effect last year. And during his campaign for governor he attended a forum held by Equality Utah, a statewide LGBTQ+ rights group, "in which he promised to ensure LGBTQ Utahns feel welcome and like they have a place in the state in order to improve mental health and decrease suicide rates among the community," the Tribune notes.