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QSaltLake’s People of the Year 2021

Angie Rice, Chris Wharton, and Sean Childers-Gray went to the Utah Supreme Court to fight for transgender rights.

Seven years ago, QSaltLake Magazine declared the plaintiffs and organizers who took Utah to court to challenge Utah’s laws and constitutional amendment that restricted marriage to male-female couples as People of the Year. They won.

This year, we declare two plaintiffs and the lawyer with the brass to take on Utah’s court system all the way to the state’s Supreme Court to fairly determine when transgender people could change their gender marker on state documents, including driver licenses and birth certificates. They won.

Angie Rice, a former command pilot, and director of operations in the U.S. Air Force, and a special education teacher in the Weber School District, decided at age 54 to transition to be a woman. Her wife, children, and extended family were supportive.

A Utah judge, however, was not.

Rice had asked attorney Chris Wharton to help file the routine paperwork requesting a gender marker change on her driver license.

“We thought that this was going to be a pretty routine name and gender change case,” Wharton said in a video for the Equality Utah Allies Impact Awards. “We didn’t at the time anticipate that this would be the start of a constitutional challenge.”

In the hearing, the judge praised Rice’s military service and career as a special education teacher.

“And then his tone changed,” Rice said. “He explained how he didn’t have the jurisdiction, or the ability, or the willingness to grant a gender marker change.”

Another Weber County transgender person, Sean Childers Gray, had recently gotten the same answer from the same judge. So he approached Wharton as well.

“I had started the gender marker change on my birth certificate in the attempts to adopt my step-child,” Childers Gray explained. “And I was told no.”

Gender marker changes are routine in the state, but this judge decided there was not clear enough instruction from Utah’s legislature on granting the changes.

Wharton decided to combine the two cases and challenge the decisions in the Utah Supreme Court.

“We had a judge saying the law wasn’t adequate, and we were saying it was, and that the overwhelming majority of judges in Utah had determined the law was adequate,” Wharton said. “The [Supreme} Court needed to establish uniformity among all of the courts in Utah.”

The three faced the Supreme Court judges in January of 2018. The Utah Attorney General’s Office chose not to be part of the case.

Without an opposing party, judges wondered aloud about jurisdiction issues.

“I think it’s noteworthy that the majority of these petitions have been unopposed because this is a policy that is working in Utah,” Wharton said.

The court took 40 months to come back with a ruling on the case.

The Court ruled May 6 that Rice and Childers-Gray can modify their driver licenses, birth certificates, and other state documents to reflect the gender with which they identify, saying the judge who declined their initial request based his decision on “a legal mistake.”

For their tenacity and perseverance to make change for the entire transgender community in Utah, QSaltLake declares Rice, Wharton, and Childers-Gray the 2021 People of the Year.

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