Two Republican governors have recently vetoed legislation to ban transgender student-athletes from participating in sports on teams corresponding to their gender identity rather than their biological sex, a stark departure from a trend many governors of their party have embraced.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb faced outrage from conservative activists over their vetoes. Utah lawmakers voted Friday to override Cox, and the Indiana Legislature may do so later this spring. But the two governors' reluctance to sign these bills into law signals wider divisions within the party on the hot-button culture war issue.
Proposals for new state laws to restrict school sports teams to one biological sex have been a goal of some conservative activists in recent years, and they gained new steam among those activists in recent weeks when University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender athlete in any sport to win an NCAA Division I championship this month. Several Republican governors seen as having aspirations for higher office, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have signed similar bans. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem initially rejected such a bill before reversing course after activist pressure.
But Cox and Holcomb bucked the trend.
Republican political consultant Jim Dornan told the Washington Examiner that such bills at a grade school level are “a solution in search of a problem.”
“I think there's a certain segment of the party that is not interested in culture wars at all,” he said. “I happen to be part of that wing of the party, much more libertarian and focused on economics than on social issues.”
Asked if the governors may reverse course in the face of activist pressure, Dornan said, “Listen, they're loud.”
“I think that these governors are going to do what they honestly think is the right thing to do,” he said.
Saying that “my conservative friends would call me a liberal for saying this,” Dornan argued that “compassion should be part of conservatism.”
“You know, George Bush was president for eight years on that slogan,” he said.
Cox issued a lengthy statement explaining his opposition to the bill, arguing that compassion was one of the reasons he vetoed the bill. Cox said that while he believes “in fairness and protecting the integrity of women’s sports,” the legislation had “several fundamental flaws and should be reconsidered.”
Cox said he was disappointed by some processing problems in the legislature, arguing that good-faith negotiations were circumvented by last-minute changes to the bill’s language shortly before its passage without sufficient opportunity for review or public input.
The governor also broke his opposition down as a matter of numbers: He said that while there are 75,000 high school student-athletes in Utah, just four of them are transgender. Only one of those four, he said, is playing girls' sports.
“That’s what all of this is about,” Cox said. “Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships.”
Cox also cited high rates of suicidal tendencies or attempts among transgender youth, writing, “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 said.
In a letter to the speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, Holcomb wrote that the bill was written in a way that presumes “that there is an existing problem in K-12 sports in Indiana that requires further state government intervention.”
“It implies that the goals of consistency and fairness in competitive female sports are not currently being met,” Holcomb wrote. “After thorough review, I find no evidence to support either claim even if I support the effort overall.”
But some conservative activists accused the governors of caving to liberal arguments or failing to protect women’s sports.
In a blog post this week, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, called the governors “gutless” and argued they “had the ability to harness Americans' outrage and do something about a consensus crisis in real time” but “refused.”
“These sellouts should never regain voters' trust, but hopefully their Republican peers have learned a very valuable lesson,” Perkins wrote, before praising DeSantis for his “pushback.”
The governors did earn praise from some gay and transgender groups, including the Human Rights Campaign. Cathryn Oakley, the group’s state legislative director and senior counsel, said in a statement that Cox “heard the voices of transgender students and their families, medical experts, the business community, and advocates for fairness in sports, all of whom oppose discriminatory legislation like HB 11.”
“He’s shown that he sees the humanity of the transgender youth targeted by this legislation — something governors in states like South Dakota and Iowa have refused to do,” Oakley said.
In another statement, Oakley said Holcomb “that would only cause problems, not solve them, by targeting Indiana’s transgender children and making them the targets of exclusion and discrimination in their own schools.”