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.
Instead of an outright ban, transgender girls will now be sent before a commission that will determine on a case-by-case basis if their participation compromises fairness. 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.
The commission, which is set to be convened in the coming weeks, will include politically appointed experts from 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.
The commission is set to go into effect while the court weighs the legal challenge to the outright ban. Members have not yet been appointed but will be in the coming weeks, legislative leaders said.
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. Similar cases are underway in states such as Idaho, West Virginia and Indiana.
Utah’s ban took effect in July after its Republican-supermajority Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Spencer Cox, also a 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.
The ruling was thrilling news to the girls and their families, said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who also represented same-sex couples in a landmark court case against Utah last decade.
“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 said he hopes the commission will act merely as a safety net, with the presumption being that transgender girls can play unless there is an obvious issue of competitive 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.
Critics of the ban were upset but said they were not surprised by 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.”
The sequence of events also laid out how officials may pursue complaints now that youth sports and the associations governing them are the subject of state laws. Spatafore said the complaint was among several the association had looked into in its efforts to comply with the Utah law, which went into effect in July.
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