SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox has promised a veto of a bill that seemingly had compromise on the issue of transgender children playing school sports, then suddenly switched to an all-out ban.
A surprise substitute was introduced on House Bill 11 in the final hours of the 2022 legislative session. The bill proposed to create a special commission to evaluate the eligibility of transgender children who sought to play sports in middle and high schools.
FOX 13 News first reported last week a compromise, brokered by the governor, was in the works. It would remove evaluating transgender children based on physical characteristics. That was something LGBTQ rights groups have objected to.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the floor sponsor of HB11, introduced that late Friday. Then Sen. Dan McCay introduced a substitute, which had the ban — unless the courts ruled against Utah in an eventual lawsuit. Then it would default to the commission.
"This is an effective policy to put a pin in this debate, and leave it there before we see a lot of uptick in transgender females participating in sports," Sen. McCay, R-Riverton, said, citing his own daughters who participate in sports and a desire to "draw a line in the sand."
Sen. Bramble said he did not object to the substitute, noting his own daughter who is an elite athlete.
"The problem is unfair competition is unfair competition," he said of transgender girls participating in sports.
The substitute prompted heated debate on the Senate floor. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, was incensed by the bill and apologized to Utah's transgender children "who just want to be loved, who just want to be seen, who just want to live."
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, defended the policy telling the Senate floor: "In the equine industry, they don't run fillies against colts."
Other lawmakers questioned if school districts would suddenly be on the hook for legal bills and other problems.
Sitting in the middle of the debate was Sue Robbins, a member of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Utah's transgender advisory council. She had been invited onto the Senate floor as a guest of Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights.
"Listening to our humanity be debated there by a lot of statements that made it evident that there are people who don't have any real understanding of transgender people is very difficult to go through," she told FOX 13 News afterward.
The substituted bill passed 16-13, with the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Majority Whip breaking ranks and voting against it. Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, called it an "attack on children."
Before the bill even made it over to the House for a vote, Gov. Cox made vowed to veto it once it hit his desk. He said he was stunned by it and had no indication that a ban was even being considered in the Senate.
"I thought we had at least the bones of a deal. And then this, this whole idea of a complete ban, we’d never talked about it. It was never debated, it just came up at the very last minute," Gov. Cox told FOX 13 News.
In the House, bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, urged support for the Senate's version of the bill. She introduced a ban last year, but sought to find some middle ground on the bill this year.
"It is not compassionate to do nothing," she told House colleagues.
The bill passed 46-29 in the House.
Gayle Ruzicka, the head of the Utah Eagle Forum, lobbied hard for the ban. She told FOX 13 News the substitute came together on Friday. Asked if leadership knew the substitute was coming, she replied: "Of course leadership knew," she said. "You don't just throw it on the floor."
Ruzicka said the governor should not veto the bill, given that it still gave him the commission if the state is sued.
"How could he veto something that lets girls play sports and have a fair chance? Nobody has an advantage based on what sex they are. It’s important that girls have girls sports and boys have boys sports or we have co-ed sports," she said.
Equality Utah said it was glad to see the governor had vetoed it.
"This is not the process that is the Utah way. This is not how you bring communities together to find proper solutions," Robbins said of the sudden passage of the substituted bill without any public hearing or input.
Friday night's votes in the House and Senate are not enough to automatically override a veto by the governor. But the bill is expected to return next year.
In his interview with FOX 13 News, Gov. Cox began to cry as he addressed transgender children in Utah. He urged them to reach out to people for comfort and support, encouraging them to download the state's "SafeUT" app for people in crisis.
"We love you. We care deeply about you. We need you to be OK and we want to help you in any way possible," he said.