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Politics & Government

How Two Utah Anti-Trans Bills Fit Into The State’s History Of LGBTQ Policy

A photo of a transgender pride flag.
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Two anti-trans bills in the Utah Legislature this year seem headed for defeat.

Two high profile bills in the Utah Legislature this year center on transgender children. One stops transgender girls from playing on girls sports teams in school. The other prevents trans kids from accessing gender affirming healthcare.

To break these down and explain some of the history of LGBTQ rights on Capitol Hill, KUER politics reporter Sonja Hutson joined All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Let’s start with the trans sports bill. What would that do?

Sonja Hutson: That would prevent trans girls from playing on girls' sports teams in Utah public schools. There is a policy currently in place to allow this to happen where girls have to be on hormones for an entire year before they can play on girls sports teams.

The argument [the bill’s sponsor makes] to ban them is that girls who are assigned male at birth have an unfair advantage over girls who are assigned female at birth. Here's the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, laying out her argument:

Kera Birkeland: In sports, biology matters. Muscles matter. While inclusion is important in sports, it will come at the cost of fairness.

CB: What does this look like in Utah right now?

SH: According to the association that oversees school sports, there are no transgender children playing school sports currently in the state. Supporters of the bill say that it's proactive to prevent potential problems down the road.

Transgender advocates say that this isn't an issue and this bill is just a message bill, meant to exclude trans kids, and could negatively impact their mental health by saying, ‘Hey, you don't belong here.’

CB: Where does the bill stand?

SH: It has passed the House, but Gov. Spencer Cox said that he would veto it as it's written right now. He got really emotional while explaining why late last week during a press conference.

Gov. Spencer Cox: These kids are …. they're just trying to stay alive. You know, there's a reason none of them are playing sports, and I just think there's a better way.

CB: Gov. Cox also said he was opposed to the other bill dealing with trans issues. That one would keep kids from accessing gender affirming health care.

SH: That bill would ban gender affirmation surgery for kids 18 and under. And to be clear, for the most part, that surgery is not recommended for minors by medical experts.

The bill also bans certain drugs like puberty blockers or hormone therapy for kids. The argument for this bill actually goes against what leading medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics say about these treatments. Puberty blockers are considered reversible and safe.

This bill is also probably dead. In addition to Cox saying that he would veto it, a House committee last week sent it back to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee decides what bills get public hearings, so they basically decide what bills live or die.

CB: Let's put these two bills in context. What have recent years looked like for LGBTQ rights in the state?

SH: Utah has not always been a good place for LGBTQ rights. The state had a ban on same sex marriage, for example, and that was overturned by a lawsuit in 2014. It was around this time when we actually started to see a series of victories for the next several years in Utah for the LGBTQ community. There was a nondiscrimination law that was passed, a hate crime law that was passed and the state banned conversion therapy for minors.

CB: So if Utah has made strides in protecting the LGBTQ community on the whole in the last few years, what's going on with these anti-trans bills? Why are they popping up now?

SH: I had the same question. To get an answer, I talked to Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. His explanation is that as gay, lesbian and bisexual people started to be more represented in media, people got accustomed to them. But a lot of people haven't had that same experience yet with trans people. Many Utahns haven't met a trans person — that they know of.

But Williams says that's changing.

Troy Williams: As transgender people begin to come out and assert their rights and their claims as Americans and as Utahns, there's going to be a pushback. But as they do so, they're going to introduce their lives to people and the fears and the misinformation that they have will begin to dissipate.

A big part of Equality Utah’s activism strategy has been to bring in people that this legislation affects and have them talk to the politicians that are running those bills. And that strategy seems to be working again with this legislation since both of the bills seem to be basically dead.

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