Lawmakers listen as parents speak about the prospect of their children competing against transgender girls in school sports at the Utah State Capitol on Friday, March 25, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Lawmakers convened to override Gov. Spencer Cox, who vetoed their proposed ban. (AP Photo/Samuel Metz)
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Young transgender athletes in Utah have been banned from competing on women’s and girls’ sports teams after GOP state lawmakers on Friday overrode a veto from their Republican governor to enact the controversial measure.

HB 11 had been vetoed earlier this week by Gov. Spencer Cox, who questioned the need for it and stressed that it targets a marginalized group that suffers from high rates of suicide.

But in a 21-8 vote by the Utah Senate and a 56-18 by the state House, Republicans circumvented him to enact the legislation.

Utah’s law states that “a student of the male sex may not compete, and a public school or (Local Education Agency) may not allow a student of the male sex to compete, with a team designated for students of the female sex in an interscholastic athletic activity.” It defines “sex” as “the biological, physical condition of being male or female, determined by an individual’s genetics and anatomy at birth.”

While sex is a category that refers broadly to physiology, a person’s gender is an innate sense of identity. The factors that go into determining the sex listed on a birth certificate may include anatomy, genetics and hormones, and there is broad natural variation in each of these categories. For this reason, critics have said the language of “biological sex,” as used in this legislation, is overly simplistic and misleading.

“We must work to preserve the integrity of women’s sports and ensure it remains fair and safe for all,” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, a Republican, said in a statement earlier this week. “We have been listening to our constituents, talking with experts, and we feel it’s important to make decisions now that protect athletes and ensure women are not edged out of their sport.”

The debate over the inclusion of transgender athletes, particularly women and girls, has become a political flashpoint, especially among conservatives. Utah is the 12th state to put such a ban on its books in recent years, and it joins Iowa and South Dakota in doing so this year.

The law is set to go into effect in July.

The ban immediately garnered criticism from the Utah Jazz NBA team, which said it opposes the “discriminatory legislation. We are committed to our values of inclusivity, mutual respect, and fair play. Beyond basketball, we hope for an equitable solution that shows love and compassion for all our youth.”

Law underwent ‘last minute’ overhaul

In vetoing the bill on Tuesday, Cox said the legislation around the issue that he had previously expressed support for underwent “major overhauls proposed at the last minute” that created the “complete ban” now on the books.

“It is important to note that a complete ban was never discussed, never contemplated, never debated, and never received any public input prior to the Legislature passing the bill on the 45th and final night of the session,” he said.

Following the override, Cox said he was “heartened that the Legislature agreed to indemnify school districts and the Utah High School Athletics Association from the enormous financial burden that inevitable litigation will have on them. I remain hopeful that we will continue to work toward a more inclusive, fair and compassionate policy during the interim.”

HB 11 stipulates that if a court ever strikes down the ban, the ruling would trigger the creation of a commission that would “establish a baseline range of physical characteristics for students participating in a specific gender-designated activity at a specific age to provide the context for the evaluation of an individual student’s eligibility for a given gender-designated interscholastic activity.”

The commission would look at cases on an individual basis to determine a trans student’s eligibility to compete. In making a determination, the commission’s members would consider whether the student might “present a substantial safety risk to the student or others that is significantly greater than the inherent risks of the given activity” or would “likely give the student a material competitive advantage when compared to students of the same age competing in the relevant gender-designated activity, including consideration of the student’s previous history of participation in gender-designated interscholastic activities.”

Advocates of such measures have argued that transgender women and girls have physical advantages ​over cisgender women and girls in sports. But a 2017 report in the journal Sports Medicine that reviewed several related studies found “no direct or consistent research” on trans people having an athletic advantage over their cisgender peers, and critics say this legislation adds to the discrimination that trans people face, particularly trans youth.

In a notable departure from how other GOP governors have discussed the issue, Cox proved a compassionate voice on the issue when he explained to lawmakers why he vetoed HB 11. He stressed in a letter to the leaders of the state’s Republican-led legislature that only four of the 75,000 high school athletes in his state are transgender.

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live,” he wrote, noting that studies have shown that the high rates of suicide among trans students can be reduced when they’re shown “even a little acceptance and connection.”

Similar efforts in other states

On Monday, Indiana Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb also vetoed an anti-trans sports ban in his state, arguing that it was too broadly written and that he found “no evidence” that the problem his state’s bill sought to fix existed.

Opponents of the bans have had limited legal success in fighting the measures, including last year when a federal judge temporarily blocked West Virginia’s enforcement of its ban after advocates for the athletes sued the state, with the judge saying he had “been provided with scant evidence that this law addresses any problem at all, let alone an important problem.” And in 2020, a federal judge blocked Idaho’s enforcement of its sports ban.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that works on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, pointed to Holcomb’s and Cox’s vetoes in a statement on Friday.

“This bill focuses on a problem of ‘fairness’ in school sports that simply does not exist — but its negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of trans and nonbinary youth are very real. These youth already face disproportionate rates of bullying, depression, and suicide risk, and bills like this one will only make matters worse.”

This story has been updated with additional reaction and background information.

CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn and Shawna Mizelle contributed to this report.