SALT LAKE CITY — Transgender girls in Utah will be able to participate in girls’ sports with the start of the school year after a judge on Friday lifted the ban pending legal challenges from parents.
Instead of an outright ban, transgender girls will now be referred to a commission that will assess on a case-by-case basis whether their participation compromises justice. Utah Republican lawmakers created the commission in a law passed earlier this year as a backup plan to be implemented in the event of an injunction against the law.
Under the law, the commission would be allowed to ask for and assess a child’s height and weight when deciding whether a transgender girl would have an unfair advantage.
The commission, which will be convened in the coming weeks, will include politically appointed experts from athletics and medicine.
When it was proposed, the committee was criticized by advocates for transgender student-athletes — who worried they would feel singled out if their bodies were measured — and advocates of an outright ban, who argued it didn’t go far enough.
The commission is due to take effect while a court weighs a legal challenge to the outright ban. The members have not yet been appointed but will be in the coming weeks, legislative leaders said.
The state association, which oversees more than 80,000 students playing high school sports, 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 committee and when its decisions will take effect.
The Utah decision marks the latest court development in a national debate over how to navigate the flashpoint issue.
At least 12 Republican-led states – including Utah – passed laws banning transgender women or girls in a premise-based sport, this gives them an unfair competitive advantage.
Transgender rights advocates oppose the rules, which are not just about sports, but another way to humiliate and attack transgender youth. Similar cases are pending in states such as Idaho, West Virginia and Indiana.
Utah’s ban went into effect in July after its Republican-majority legislature overrode Gov. Spencer Cox’s vetoalso a republican.
Utah State Judge Keith Kelly said in the ruling that stayed the ban that attorneys representing the families of three transgender female student-athletes had shown they had suffered significant stress by being “singled out for adverse treatment as transgender girls.”
Transgender girls and parents filed a lawsuit last May, claiming the ban violates the Utah constitution’s guarantees of equal rights and due process.
The decision was exciting news for the girls and their families, said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Lesbian Rights Center, which also represented same-sex couples in a landmark lawsuit against Utah over the past decade.
“The pressure, the strain he was putting them under was so immense,” Minter said. “It’s just a huge relief to lift that weight.”
Utah state Sen. Stewart Adams, a Republican, said in a statement Friday that the commission will now make decisions in a way “to protect fair and safe competition while preserving the integrity of women’s sports.”
The committee will include a medical data statistician, a physician with expertise in “gender identity health care,” a sports physiologist, a mental health professional, a collegiate athletic trainer, an athletic association representative, and a rotating member who is a coach or sports official eligible for any case.
Minter said he hopes the committee will simply act as a safety net, with the presumption being that transgender girls can play unless there is an obvious competitive fairness issue.
“How it’s done is very important,” Minter said.
The decision follows a revelation this week by the Utah High School Activities Association that secretly investigated a female athlete — without telling her or her parents — after receiving complaints from the parents of two girls she beat in a competition questioning whether the girl was transgender.
The investigation, which has been heavily criticized by Cox, determined she was indeed female after reviewing her school records from 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 highlights how the impact of the politicization of girls’ sports affects more than transgender student-athletes and subjects all girls to scrutiny in ways they expected.
“It creates such a negative atmosphere based on stereotypes about girls and what they should look like,” Minter said. “It’s really harmful to all the children in the state.”
The sequence of events also laid out how officials can pursue complaints now that youth sports and the associations that govern them are subject to state laws. Spatafore said the complaint is among several the association has looked into in its efforts to comply with the Utah law, which took effect in July.
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