Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox
FILE – In this Jan. 8, 2021, file photo, Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks during a briefing at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Cox said Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, that he wouldn’t yet be comfortable with signing the current version of a bill that would ban transgender girls from female sports, though he’s continuing conversations with the sponsors. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News, via AP, Pool, File)

By LINDSAY WHITEHURST Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s conservative Republican governor choked up Thursday as he spoke about the struggles faced by transgender teenagers, though he didn’t commit to vetoing a bill that would ban them from girls’ sports.

Gov. Spencer Cox sought middle ground on a polarizing issue that is coming up in statehouses around the U.S., saying he wouldn’t sign the current version of the proposal but there are “real, valid, serious concerns” among supporters who say transgender athletes can have an advantage in women’s sports.

Cox became emotional during a televised news conference on PBS-Utah as he talked about the difficulties faced by transgender teenagers.

“These kids. They’re just trying to stay alive,” he said. “When you spend time with these kids, it changes your heart in important ways.”

Cox has been known for his compassionate stances toward LGBTQ people, though he’s navigating the issue for the first time as governor and facing a bill supported by people like the influential speaker of the House. Discussions are ongoing, he said.

Utah is one of more than 20 states where similar bills have been introduced. The bills have also advanced in states like Mississippi, North Dakota Montana and Tennessee .

Its Utah sponsor, Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, has said it would ensure fairness by making sure female athletes aren’t competing against those identified as male at birth. She has not detailed any cases of openly transgender athletes playing school sports in Utah.

Opponents, though, say the bill would discriminate against kids who are already marginalized and if passed could expose the state to lost revenue, as when North Carolina passed the so-called “bathroom bill” in 2016. It also runs counter to Democratic President Joe Biden’s executive order prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in school sports.

Cox also said Thursday he has “threatened to veto” a second bill restricting gender-confirming medical care for transgender youth in Utah, though he also suggested common ground could be found there. It’s set for a legislative hearing Friday.

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Governor: Spending Time with Trans Kids ‘Changes Your Heart’