SALT LAKE CITY — Transgender girls in Utah will be given the opportunity to participate in girls’ sports as the school year begins, after a judge on Friday reversed a ban pending legal challenges from parents.
Transgender transgender girls won’t be banned outright. Instead, they will be sent to a panel that will decide on a case by case basis whether their participation is unfair. Utah’s Republican lawmakers created the commission in a law passed earlier this year as a fallback plan to be implemented in case of an injunction against the law.
Under the law, the panel will be allowed to ask for and assess the child’s height and weight in making decisions about whether a transgender girl would have an unfair advantage.
This commission is expected to meet in the next weeks and will consist of politically-appointed experts from medicine, athletics, and medicine.
When proposed, the commission was criticized by advocates for transgender student-athletes — who worried they would feel targeted having their bodies measured — and proponents of an outright ban, who argued it didn’t go far enough.
While the court considers whether to uphold the ban, the commission will be in effect. Legislative leaders stated that members have yet to be appointed, but they will in the next few weeks.
The state’s association overseeing more than 80,000 students playing high school sports has said only one transgender girl competed in their leagues last year and, with school sports already underway, it’s unclear how many will go before the commission and when its decisions will take effect.
Utah’s ruling marked the latest court development in a nationwide debate over how to navigate the flashpoint issue.
At least 12 Republican-led states — including Utah — have passed laws banning transgender women or girls in sports based on the premise it gives them an unfair competitive advantage.
Transgender rights advocates counter the rules aren’t just about sports, but another way to demean and attack transgender youth. In states like Idaho, West Virginia, and Indiana similar cases are ongoing.
Utah’s ban took effect in July after its Republican-supermajority Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Spencer Cox is also Republican.
Utah state Judge Keith Kelly said in the ruling putting the ban on hold that attorneys representing the families of three transgender student-athletes showed they have suffered significant distress by “singling them out for unfavorable treatment as transgender girls.”
The transgender girls and the parents filed the lawsuit last May, contending the ban violates the Utah Constitution’s guarantees of equal rights and due process.
Shannon Minter from the National Center for Lesbian Rights was the legal director. She also represented Utah-based same-sex couples last decade in an important court case.
“The pressure, the strain this was putting them under was so enormous,” Minter said. “It is just a huge relief to have that weight lifted.”
Utah state Sen. Stuart Adams, a Republican, said in a statement Friday that the commission that will now make decisions in a way “to protect equitable and safe competition while preserving the integrity of women’s sports.”
The commission will include a medical data statistician, a physician with experience about “gender identity healthcare”, a sports physiologist, mental health professional, collegiate athletic trainer, representative of an athletic association and a rotating member who is a coach or official in the sport relevant to each case.
Minter stated that he hopes the Commission will be merely a safety net. The presumption is that transgender girls are allowed to play, unless there’s an obvious problem of fairness.
“How it is done is very important,” Minter said.
The ruling follows a revelation this week by the Utah High School Activities Association that it secretly investigated a female athlete — without telling her or her parents — after receiving complaints from the parents of two girls she had defeated in competition questioning whether the girl was transgender.
The investigation — which was roundly criticized by Cox — determined she indeed was female after poring through her school records dating back to kindergarten, association spokesman David Spatafore told lawmakers this week.
Although some were outraged by the ban, others said that they weren’t surprised at the results of the investigation. They said it highlighted how the impact of politicizing girls’ sports affected more than transgender student-athletes and subjected all girls to scrutiny in ways they anticipated.
“It creates such a negative atmosphere based on stereotypes about girls and how they should look,” Minter said. “It is really is harmful to all the kids in the state.”
Also, the sequence of events explains how officials can pursue complaints about youth sports or the organizations that regulate them. Spatafore indicated that this complaint was just one of the many it had investigated in order to conform with Utah law. It went into effect July 1.
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