SALT LAKE CITY — Transgender girls in Utah will be able to participate in women’s sports with the start of the school year after a judge on Friday overturned the ban pending legal challenges from parents.
Instead of a blanket ban, transgender girls will now appear before a state board of political appointees who will determine on a case-by-case basis whether they are eligible to participate. Utah’s Republican lawmakers created the commission in a law passed earlier as a backup plan to be implemented in the event of an injunction against the law.
Under the terms of the law, the commission would be allowed to ask for and assess a child’s height and weight when deciding whether a transgender girl would have an unfair advantage. The committee, to be convened in the coming weeks, will include a medical data statistician, a physician with expertise in gender identity health, a sports physiologist, a mental health specialist, a collegiate athletic trainer, an athletic association representative and a rotating member who is coach or sports official suitable for any occasion.
The Utah decision marks the latest court development in a national debate over how to navigate a flashpoint issue.
At least 12 Republican-led states — including Utah — have passed laws banning transgender women or girls from sports on the premise that it gives them an unfair competitive advantage. Transgender rights advocates counter that the rules aren’t just about sports, but are another way to humiliate and attack transgender youth. Similar cases are pending in states such as Idaho, West Virginia and Indiana.
Utah’s ban went into effect in July after the Republican state legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Spencer Cox, also a Republican.
Utah State Judge Keith Kelly said in the ruling that attorneys representing the families of three transgender student-athletes who filed the lawsuit had shown they suffered significant stress by “isolating them for adverse treatment as transgender girls.”
The transgender girls and parents filed the lawsuit last May, claiming it violates the Utah Constitution’s guarantees of equal rights and due process.
The decision was exciting news for the girls and their families, said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Lesbian Rights Center.
“The pressure, the strain he was putting them under was so enormous,” Minter said. “It’s just a huge relief to lift that weight.”
Utah state Sen. Stewart Adams, a Republican, said in a statement Friday that the commission will now make decisions in a way “to protect fair and safe competition while preserving the integrity of women’s sports.”
Minter said he hopes the commission makes fair decisions, keeps the process confidential and turns into a good decision. He hopes the committee will only act as a safety net, with the presumption being that transgender girls can play unless there is an obvious competitive fairness issue.
“How it’s done is very important,” Minter said.
The decision follows a revelation this week by the Utah High School Activities Association that it secretly investigated an athlete — without telling her or her parents — after receiving complaints from the parents of two girls she beat in a competition, questioning whether the girl was transgender. The association and the girl’s high school determined she was indeed female after reviewing her school records since kindergarten, association spokesman David Spatafor told lawmakers this week. He said the girl and her family were not notified of the investigation to spare them embarrassment and “to keep the matter private,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Gov. Cox said Thursday at his monthly news conference that the parents’ complaint about the girl being investigated crossed the line.
“My God, we live in this world where we’ve become big losers and we’re looking for any reason why our child lost,” he said. He said he supports fairness in sports, but that “coming up with allegations like this is quite disturbing to me.”
Spatafore declined to reveal the student’s class, school or sport to protect her identity. He said the student and her family were not notified of the investigation because it might be offensive to them and that parents were contacted “if necessary.”
Spatafore also said the association has looked into other complaints involving transgender athletes in its efforts to comply with Utah’s law, which took effect in July. Some complaints include “when an athlete doesn’t look feminine enough,” he said. None of the complaints have been confirmed.
Before the ban, Utah had one registered transgender athlete competing last year on a girls’ high school team, Spatafor said.