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Utah lawmakers override veto on transgender sports ban

Along with revealing cracks within the GOP in Utah on the issue, the ban will likely prompt lawsuits and lengthy battles over the emergent cultural flashpoint.

(CN) — Republican lawmakers in Utah overrode a veto by Governor Spencer Cox Friday, meaning a law that banned transgender youth from participating in women’s athletics will take effect.

Cox, a Republican, drew national headlines for bucking his party’s increasingly sharp rhetoric about transgender women competing in women's sports. The issue has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks after University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who once competed in male swimming events, won the 1500-meter national championship racing against women. 

Some female swimmers complained that not only did Thomas unfairly win the championship, but her presence in a variety of event finals shouldered out more deserving candidates who did not get to race because of the natural advantages of someone born male.

But Cox said in a letter explaining his veto earlier in the week that Utah does not have many transgender athletic competitors and that their exclusion from sports could further exacerbate their feelings of isolation and otherness. 

“There seems to be a belief that any biologically born male could simply say he was transgender and begin participating in women’s sports,” Cox said when explaining the veto. “This is incorrect. For many years now, the UHSAA has had in place a rule that only allows male-to-female transgender participation in women’s sports after a full year of difficult transition hormone therapy and in consultation with a health care professional.”

The governor also said there are only four transgender athletes in the entire state of Utah, out of approximately 75,000 students who participate in high school athletics. He also said the Legislature rushed House Bill 11 and skipped typical negotiating processes that would have resulted in a better bill. 

But Utah, which has a deeply conservative base that is active in state politics, became the 11th state to pass a law forbidding biological males from competing in women’s sports. 

“I truly believe we’re here to uphold Title IX, to preserve the integrity of women’s sports and to do so in a way unlike other states,” said state Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican who sponsored the bill. 

Advocates for the bill contend allowing people who were born male to compete in women sports will destroy female athletics due to natural male advantages in most athletic categories, particularly as it relates to strength and speed. 

But others argue a binary approach to gender is stifling to young people questioning their own sexuality and whether their gender expression matches their biological sex. 

“Things are not simply black and white, in terms of gender orientation, sexual orientation, gender identification,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, a Democrat. “It’s definitely not accurate to say that girls are girls and boys are boys.”

The last comment drew groans from the crowd gathered to hear the contentious arguments before the vote was tallied. 

Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues and suicide, something that Cox cited in his veto letter. 

“I want them to live,” he wrote of transgender youth who have to navigate their differences in arduous climates where bullying and jeering can be commonplace. 

A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 40% of transgender youth had at least attempted suicide, a much higher rate than the general population. 

Besides Utah, least 25 states have introduced similarly constructed bans. 

Ryan Smith, who owns the Utah Jazz, criticized the law on Friday, saying it was rushed and wouldn’t hold up to long-term scrutiny. Salt Lake City is slated to hold the NBA All-Star Game in 2023 and similar laws against LGBT people have spurred the league to act.

The Utah Athletic Association came out against the bill, saying it lacks funds to enforce the measure and to fight it in court should the parents of transgender youth sue. Lawsuits have already been filed in West Virginia and Tennessee that seek to dissolve similar laws. 

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