SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican governors in two states this week rejected legislation to ban transgender players from women’s sports — signs that there remain rifts among GOP leaders over how to navigate re-emergence. gender as a culture war issue.
Still, those moves to unseat the party’s conservative wing could prove short-lived against a fiery GOP base and lawmakers seeking to overrule governors.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb have vetoed bills passed by state lawmakers that would ban transgender girls from participating in youth-only sports .
Their opposition puts them at odds with some of their high-profile counterparts in states such as Iowa, Florida and South Dakota, where politically ambitious governors have leaned into debates as LGBTQ Americans have become increasingly visible in society and pop culture.
Given the very small number of transgender student-athletes playing in the two states — four in Utah and none in Indiana — Cox and Holcomb say the bans solve a virtually non-existent problem and divert attention from a broader conservative agenda.
Holcomb said in a veto letter that Indiana lawmakers’ rationale for a ban “implies that the goals of consistency and fairness in women’s competitive sports are not currently being achieved.”
“After extensive review, I find no evidence to support either claim, although I support the effort as a whole,” he added.
Last year, The Associated Press contacted two dozen lawmakers in more than 20 states considering similar youth sports measures and found that it was only a problem a few times among the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who play sports in high school.
But lawmakers in Utah and Indiana are undeterred, saying transgender girls may have a physical advantage.
“It’s not about the number of children. It’s not about a number at all. It’s about a fundamental belief – whether you have it or not – that women’s sports should be preserved. for those who were born biologically and identify as female,” said Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican high school basketball coach who originally sponsored the ban that applies to athletes from the kindergarten to 12th grade.
Legislative leaders say they whipped votes to override vetoes and join nearly a dozen other states in restricting teams that transgender children can play on. Indiana’s bill passed with broad support, and legislative leaders are meeting in late May and could overturn it with a simple majority.
Many cite transgender college swimmer Lia Thomas, who won an individual title at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship last week. Although she also placed 5th and 8th in two other races, her victory drew widespread attention, including from Republican politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who issued an official proclamation declaring the runner-up the “real winner”.
Until two years ago, no state had passed a law regulating youth sports by gender. But the issue has become a central one in Republican-led state homes since Idaho lawmakers passed the first national sports participation law in 2020. It’s now stalled in court, along with another in West Virginia.
Governors of states like Kansas, Louisiana and North Dakota vetoed similar legislation last year, citing fear of lawsuits or retaliation from corporations or sports associations like the NCAA or the NBA. Although organizations moved events from North Carolina in 2016 after lawmakers limited public restrooms transgender people could use, states that banned transgender student-athletes generally didn’t face a backlash. similar reaction.
However, the pushback came from social conservatives. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, faced pressure after vetoing a ban last year. She quickly got one passed this year and promoted the legislation with a series of TV ads.
In Utah, Cox cited in his veto letter the broader message the ban sends to transgender children, who have disproportionately high suicide rates. In an apparent acknowledgment that lawmakers would override his veto, he said he knew signing the law would have been the most politically expedient move.
Lawmakers are confident they will be able to override the veto after unseating several Republicans who voted against the ban and face re-election challenges from the right in primary races decided by a small group of members of the ultra-conservative party.
“Governor. Cox fears this is costing him his political career,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “The message young people and their parents are getting is that the legislature is hostile to their lives.”
Holcomb and Cox also worry about spending taxpayer dollars on legal fees. “Let someone else, let Idaho spend millions of dollars defending this and then, no matter what, we can react to this,” Cox said.
While LBGTQ advocates and allies may have made inroads with governors, much of the party seems “pretty unified in its anti-transgender stance in the states right now,” said political science professor Jason Pierceson. at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
“I would say the waivers are more the story of the Republican Party than the governor’s vetoes,” he said. “There is no political space within the Republican Party right now for a pro-transgender rights approach.”
The push dates back to the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 and another drafted by the new Tory High Court majority in 2020, finding that the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in the employment of people transgender, he said.
Some conservative activists hope a federal court system with more judges appointed by former President Donald Trump could help new legislation hold up in court, he said.
Meanwhile, there are also bills in several states that would restrict gender confirmation care for transgender youth. DeSantis also signed legislation this year banning instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“At this point, Governor Cox appears to be an outlier on this issue,” said Chris Karpowitz, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. “It seems to be an issue that causes a lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of militant energy.”