Anika Bateman holds a "You belong here" sign Thursday during a rally to support transgender youths outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City. Credit: Kristin Murphy / The Deseret News via AP

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Utah is joining a harmful and unnecessary wave of legislation targeting transgender inclusion in sports across the country. This is happening despite a thoughtful and compelling veto by Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, who has rightly called for compassion and compromise.

Though Utah lawmakers voted to override Cox, the explanation in his veto message should be instructive for this debate nationwide. He has powerfully discussed the numbers, people and policy involved while stressing that he doesn’t know everything about trans participation in sports.

“When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion. I also try to get proximate and I am learning so much from our transgender community,” Cox said. “They are great kids who face enormous struggles. Here are the numbers that have most impacted my decision: 75,000, 4, 1, 86 and 56.”

There are 75,000 high school kids participating in Utah high school sports, according to Cox. Four of them are transgender, and one is playing in girls sports. Compare that to the 86 percent of transgender youth who report suicidality, and the 56 percent of transgender youth who have attempted suicide.

“Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying  to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through  each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox continued. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly. For that reason, as much as any other, I have taken this action in the hope that we can continue to work together and find a better way.”

Cox rightly emphasized the people and stakes involved while also wading into policy and process. He noted that there had been attempts to find compromise with lawmakers and advocates on this issue by creating a commission of experts who would assess on an individual basis whether a trans athlete’s participation would create any fairness or safety issues.

“Utah has a history of trying to approach complicated issues in ways that bring collaboration and fairness. From immigration and criminal justice reform to LGBTQ protections and religious freedom, Utah has often shown an unusual willingness to find new and compassionate ways to  solve the most toxic debates of our time,” Cox said. “For this reason, I was heartened and encouraged to see legislators sitting down with LGBTQ advocates to work on a compromise that would both protect women’s sports and allow some participation for our most marginalized transgendered youth. No other state has done this, and we hoped that Utah could be the first.”

Now, we’re not saying Cox is wrong on this point about Utah potentially being first. The details of this commission very well could have made Utah the first state to take this specific path. But the general approach proposed here sounds a lot like what Maine already does in terms of promoting inclusion in sports while also maintaining fairness and safety.  

The Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees high school sports in Maine, developed elgibilty rules for transgender student athlete participation several years ago. The MPA “believes that all students should have the opportunity to participate in MPA activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, unless such participation would result in an unfair athletic advantage or would present an unacceptable risk of injury to other student athletes.”

This already balanced approach didn’t stop Maine Republicans from proposing the same kind of anti-trans legislation seen elsewhere. Thankfully this effort was defeated in the Legislature last year.

We would love to not have to keep writing about this issue. We would love it if Republican-controlled legislatures would stop trying to turn it into something bigger and more complicated than it is, as if states like Maine haven’t already found ways to balance inclusion, fairness and safety. We would love it if these Republican lawmakers could follow Cox’s lead in deferring to “kindness, mercy and compassion.” And we would love it if they looked at the numbers, looked at existing policies, and looked in the mirror to realize that the biggest problem in this debate is them.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...