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Utah governor vetoes transgender athlete bill, citing high suicide rates: ‘I want them to live’

On Friday, state lawmakers overrode the veto

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. (Washington Post illustration; Rick Bowmer/AP)

This story has been updated.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox became the second Republican governor in the past week to veto a bill that would have barred transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports, writing an impassioned letter to state GOP leaders on Tuesday explaining his decision.

Cox cited “fundamental flaws” in the legislation, known as H.B. 11. But chief among the governor’s concerns were the mental health impacts such a bill could have on transgender youths in the state, he wrote.

Cox’s decision to veto the bill highlights divisions within the Republican Party on the efficacy and morality of bills restricting the lives of young trans people. GOP leaders in Utah said they would override Cox’s veto, which they did by substantial margins in both chambers on Friday (56-18 in the state House and 21-8 in the state Senate).

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In Cox’s letter, which was also posted on Twitter, the governor cited several reasons he was going against H.B. 11. He raised concerns about substantial last-minute changes to the bill’s content; the potential economic and legal backlash; and a “broad misunderstanding” around the participation of transgender youth in sports.

But what “most impacted” Cox’s decision were the implications the bill could have on the mental health of trans youths, he wrote, citing two striking numbers: 86 percent of trans youth have reported suicidality and 56 percent have reported a suicide attempt, a 2020 study found.

Cox contrasted those numbers with the number of young people the bill could affect. Of the 75,000 high school kids who play sports at their schools in the Utah, only four are openly transgender, Cox noted. Of that four, only one student plays on a girls’ team.

“Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what this is all about,” Cox wrote. “Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are part of something.”

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” the governor continued. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”

Earlier in the week, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson said they would call a veto override session to consider the bill on Friday. The override was successful, with both Republican-controlled chambers of the state legislature meeting the two-thirds threshold to revive the bill, NBC News reported.

“We must work to preserve the integrity of women’s sports and ensure it remains safe and fair for all,” Adams said in a statement ahead of the vote.

Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican who proposed a House version of the bill, said she was disappointed by the veto and vowed to continue to advocate for the issue: “Sports are [girls’] opportunity to overcome obstacles and break barriers. But in order to do that, they need a fair playing field,” she said in a statement.

Only two Republicans in the Senate voted against the override, reported the Salt Lake Tribune.

In the last two years, conservative state legislators across the country have proposed and enacted restrictions on transgender youths’ participation in interscholastic activities, including sports, as well as restrictions on their ability to access gender-affirming health care.

An Idaho bill would criminalize medical treatments for trans youths. It echoes abortion bans.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 147 such bills were introduced across the country in 2021; the LGBTQ advocacy organization predicts that the number will be even higher this year.

One of the most prominent policies targeting trans children and their families came out of Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate gender-affirming care for trans youths as “child abuse.”

The order drew legal challenges and widespread criticism from major businesses, including Google, Apple and Johnson & Johnson. This month, a district judge suspended Abbott’s order.

Some governors have pushed back on these bills. In 2021, Kansas, Louisiana and North Dakota passed bills targeting young transgender athletes that were vetoed by their governors. On Monday, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) struck down a similar bill. In a letter addressing his decision, Holcomb said he found no evidence that K-12 sports needed additional government intervention. The governor also noted that the bill, if passed, would probably face legal challenges.

Cox and Holcomb are still outliers among their GOP peers: Similar laws have already been passed by conservative legislatures in nearly a dozen states.

This legislation, whether it passes, has a profound impact on the mental health of trans and nonbinary children, said Amit Paley, chief executive of the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ teens and young adults.

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“People literally debating whether trans and nonbinary people exist and whether they are deserving of the same respect and support as other young people — the mere fact of those debates have a negative impact on the health of young people,” Paley said.

There is a “sad and heartbreaking irony” to sports bans in particular, Paley said. The Trevor Project’s survey among a nonrandom sample of LGBTQ teens and young adults found that most LGBTQ youth said they had never participated in sports, be it a school team or community league or club. Many cited fear of being bullied or discriminated against as a key factor for not joining.

“Lawmakers are essentially trying to engage in bullying by legislation, by trying to make the few people that were able to feel community in sports feel like they don’t belong and can’t participate,” Paley said.

For weeks, LGBTQ advocates and conservative lawmakers had worked together to try to strike a compromise on the Utah bill, which at one point included the creation of a special commission to evaluate whether transgender children are eligible to play school athletics.

Republicans had proposed that the commission evaluate physical characteristics of transgender children, including their wingspan and hip-to-knee ratios. LGBTQ rights groups in the state vehemently opposed this approach: Candice Metzler, executive director of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, told a local Fox News outlet that such scrutiny would create another barrier for young trans people.

Lawmakers signaled last month that they would be open to amending the bill’s language. But on the last day of the state’s legislative session, Republicans opted to amend the bill to include a total ban of transgender participation in high school sports.

Paley stressed that mental health struggles are not endemic to being trans, but the result of discrimination and stigma, which lead to increased feelings of isolation. The Trevor Project’s research found that when transgender and nonbinary youth are supported and accepted by adults and peers in their lives, their odds of attempting suicide significantly diminish.

In his letter, Cox also raised concerns about the “millions of dollars in legal fees” H.B. 11 could draw. In the event of a veto override, Cox said he hoped the legislature could find ways to affirm transgender youth while regulating their participation in high school sports.

But the governor also nodded to the way bills targeting transgender youth have become a litmus test for the Republican Party at large. Several of the H.B. 11′s strongest proponents are up for reelection this year.

“I recognize the political realities of my decision,” wrote Cox, who will be up for reelection in 2024. “Politically, it would be much easier and better for me to simply sign the bill.”

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