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Bill on Utah transgender athletes passes out of committee — but nobody's happy with it

Posted at 10:41 AM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 19:41:27-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that sets ground rules for transgender student athletes to participate in middle and high school sports has passed out of a House committee.

But neither LGBTQ rights groups or social conservatives are happy about it.

Rep. Kera Birkeland's House Bill 11 passed on a 6-3 vote out of the House Health & Human Services Committee. It's significantly different from her original proposal that banned transgender athletes from participating in school sports entirely.

"The original bill, HB11, there were a lot of issues with it," Rep. Birkeland, R-Morgan, conceded.

This time, she is proposing a new path.

"If their birth certificate says male and they pick a girl's team to play on, then it will trigger a commission. The commission is outlined very simply," Rep. Birkeland told the committee.

The special commission evaluates children and whether they are eligible to participate in a sport consisent with their gender identity. Membership of that commission includes a mental health professional and medical data statistician appointed by the Utah State Senate; a physician with expertise in transgender health care and a physiologist appointed by the House of Representatives; an athletic trainer and representative from an athletic association appointed by the governor; and someone from the student's school athletics department.

"Everything about this is geared toward this child wanting to play in this sport. To me, it makes sense," said Rep. Birkeland.

In public testimony, the bill faced push back. Committee vice-chair Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, actually shut down one person's remarks when she called Rep. Birkeland "bigoted and transphobic."

Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, said they have been negotiating with Rep. Birkeland on the bill's language, but had concerns about the partisan nature of the legislative appointees.

"The current draft reflects some of our feedback, which we are grateful for. We also have some significant concerns. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to throw our full support behind it yet," he told the committee.

Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she favored an all-out ban and the court challenges that come with it.

"Any bill that allows biological boys to play on girls sports, I don’t like anything that allows for that," she told FOX 13 News outside the committee hearing. "It shouldn’t happen."

Lawmakers voted along party-lines to advance the bill to the full House of Representatives. Rep. Pierucci noted that with no one happy, it may be a sign of a good compromise.

Outside the hearing, some student athletes wore stickers opposing the bill.

"It’s not about necessarily... excluding transgender people," said Emily Subardjo, who attends Bountiful High School. "I love those people and I know people who are like that. It just won’t show any of my hard work and how much I love my sport."

Dr. Candice Metzler, the executive director of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, said she hoped they could find an agreement.

"I think the message we want to be careful about sending is you don’t get to participate or that you’re going to go under the microscope just for participating in high school sports," she said.

The bill is still being negotiated even as it moves to the House floor. One of those involved is University of Illinois professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, who flew out to Utah last week to meet with people. She helped facilitate discussions on Utah's historic 2015 LGBTQ nondiscrimination law that was endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"There’s a lot of concern in the public about House Bill 11," Rep. Birkeland said. "Either it doesn’t do enough to preserve women’s sports or it does too much and is not inclusive of transgender athletes. We really threaded a fine needle."