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Rollout of Utah’s transgender bathroom law has sparked confusion in schools

A transgender pride flag outside a Salt Lake City home, May 1, 2024, the same day a provision of a Utah law goes into effect that restricts which bathrooms transgender students in K-12 schools can use.
Saige Miller
A transgender pride flag outside a Salt Lake City home, May 1, 2024, the same day a provision of a Utah law goes into effect that restricts which bathrooms transgender students in K-12 schools can use.

Utah’s public schools have been in a rush to prepare for the enforcement of new bathroom restrictions for transgender people. There’s no centralized approach, leaving districts with a patchwork of plans and confused teachers and students.

Alex Williams, a 16-year-old transgender high schooler, knows it is going to impact her.

The law took effect when Gov. Spencer Cox signed it in January but compliance didn’t kick in until May 1. Under the law, residents and visitors must use bathrooms and changing rooms in government-owned buildings that correspond with their sex assigned at birth. If a transgender student isn’t comfortable using the school bathroom or locker room that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate, they are required to occupy a gender-neutral or faculty restroom.

Williams’ preference is the facility that aligns with her gender identity, but if the school won’t let her, then she’ll “deal with going to the gender-neutral restrooms.” To her knowledge, there is one on every floor, but they are “inevitably farther than the normal bathrooms.” So, she’ll either have to be late to class or ask to use the bathroom at the beginning of class to abide by the law.

“What I do expect is for my teachers to not give me any flack for asking at the beginning of class,” she said.

Williams considers herself privileged to be in the position she is in. She has gender-affirming care because she was grandfathered in before the Legislature banned puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors in 2023. She worries though about her transgender peers who don’t have the same access as her.

“When I go into a women's bathroom, I look like a cis-gender woman. However, my trans friends who don't present as female as me, who can’t afford to replace their entire wardrobe and are on hormone blockers, are going to be more noticeably transgender. And that doesn't make their identities any less valid,” she said.

Republican state Rep. Kera Birkeland, the bill’s primary sponsor, has argued the bathroom restrictions are a necessary safeguard against people who might claim they’re transgender to infiltrate a gendered space. She pitched the law as a safety measure to protect the privacy of women and girls without citing evidence of threats or assaults by trans people against them. Trans residents say she has used a hypothetical to justify exclusion.

Legislators left it up to each school district to decide how it would communicate the changes. Some have held classroom presentations. Others have sent home fact sheets or met privately with families who might be affected.

The Salt Lake City School District, for example, opted to give a presentation about the law and its accommodations for transgender students.

“In a particular school, it might be the principal delivering it, [in] another school it might be the counselor or the teacher. But the content of the presentation is the same at every school,” said Yándary Chatwin, the district’s executive director of communications.

She added the district is also working with students individually to create a privacy plan if needed.

The Iron County School District is taking a more individualized approach. Shauna Lund, the communications coordinator for the district, said it has “given instructions to principals to share with employees and families impacted by the legislation,” instead of sharing information district-wide.

Granite School District spokesperson Andrea Stringham said they provided “some light training to principals on how to work with students and families that this bill impacts.”

“Since this impacts a very small percentage of students and families, principals were directed to share the appropriate information with those who were potentially impacted.”

Marina Lowe, the policy director for Equality Utah, said the lack of clarity on how the schools should notify could spur confusion.

“People move from school to school,” she said. “There are often school competitions that take place at other schools. And so I think it gets very difficult when you have different rules that apply in different settings.”

Other states have challenged similar laws, but there has yet to be one filed in Utah. Aaron Welcher, the communication director with the ACLU of Utah, said they are “still considering all options on the table” before taking legal action. However, since the law is in motion, the organization has created a survey to gather information about how parents and students are impacted by the various policies around the state.

“The insights from results will help us understand how this law impacts students and schools so we are equipped to keep kids and their civil rights and liberties safe across Utah.”

KUER’s Martha Harris and the Associated Press contributed to this report

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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