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Utah’s 11th-hour anti-trans legislative bomb

by Sue Robbins

This year, the Utah legislative session has been particularly brutal for the transgender community. While a bill banning health care for transgender youth was once again discussed, it received little attention due to the high visibility of a bill impacting transgender participation in sports. The fact that removing healthcare from an individual gets little attention speaks to the times we are in with country-wide attacks against the transgender community.

The sports bill traces back to last year. In 2021, Rep. Kera Birkeland unveiled her bill and started the path that took us to this point. The first bill was a complete ban for transgender girls. We engaged with the sponsor on this bill, but there was little negotiation to be realized in this effort. There was a lot of work and testimony which completely revolved around defeating the bill. With sports, medical, and other bills introduced across the country, there was a sense of being under attack, and they were directly targeting our youth.

The sports bill passed through the House and then reached the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. At this hearing, the voices strongly supported the transgender community, including representatives from major medical organizations, Silicon Slopes, and universities. At the end of the testimonies, a surprising end to the discussion happened when the committee voted to adjourn, which basically tabled the bill. This gave us a sense of relief as we had protected our youth this time, knowing that the discussion wasn’t going away and more work lay ahead.

During committee, I regularly said that I would commit to meeting throughout the year to help with the understanding of how this effort impacts us. I also said it might take three years as there was much on which to work. We know that education is a slow path. So, starting in July, we met on four occasions with large groups that included the sponsor and various government officials. We educated, gave stories, and offered up possible paths forward in each meeting.

Those that have talked with people who don’t understand our community can likely relate. These meetings were very hard on me. The development of strategy was a lot of work, but being in meetings and hearing people misgender and de-humanize you, even if from a position of ignorance, is a lot to work through so that you can keep offering up more education in a manner that it is accepted and not shutting down others from listening. This is the hard part of activism.

Two days before a November Interim Health and Human Services committee meeting, we received a draft from the sponsor, which stated that transgender girls could participate if they had changed their birth certificate and had been on hormone therapy for a year. If a transgender boy was taking testosterone, they would immediately be able to compete in boys’ sports. The last part is not something that is actually a problem for us, but its presence feeds the narrative that testosterone makes us stronger, bigger, faster.

This bill was the first revision submitted to the 2022 legislative general session, but it didn’t last long. This was right as Lia Thomas, a Pennsylvania State swimmer, started to have success winning meets and setting conference records. I am so happy for Lia realizing goals from some long, hard work, some of which was done while attending college and also while transitioning. Throughout the discussions on sports bills, I stated that as long as we aren’t noticed, there isn’t an issue. Once we start to be successful, efforts are developed to take that success away and make us invisible again. With Lia’s success, this triggered that direction again.

We met with the sponsor, along with others involved, and discussed possibilities to pull the wording back to be less damaging. A commission became the standard narrative, and while we then worked to make it be more medically-based to be appropriate, it was first filled with sports-related people and statisticians. Again, we are being judged on the dimensions of our bodies. The lack of understanding of transgender bodies had us being held separately.

Through our discussions, we were able to get a doctor added who had experience treating transgender individuals and a general therapist that we requested have transgender affirming experience. We were rejected. This set a theme that we would have little impact on significant items. We asked for privacy considerations for the youth, and that is one area that we were able to impact.

At this point, the bill passed the House and was assigned to the Senate Business and Labor committee. We remained opposed to the bill due to the commission’s construction, the manner they were selected, and a horrible and hurtful list of physical characteristics that the youth would be judged on, among other considerations. The bill passed committee on a 3–2 vote, with the two against appearing to be concerned about its constitutionality.

In our final meeting, one that was held with the governor and lt. governor, there was discussion on removing the characteristics and at that point, we were left waiting to see what the final presentation to the Senate would be. Our expectation was that the characteristics would be removed and potentially Middle School would no longer be impacted, a request from the Utah High School Athletics Association, who was charged with administering the process and was very concerned with the responsibilities being placed on them. Note they are a High School related organization being asked to get involved in Middle School sports, a large increase in mission for a non-governmental organization.

The last day of the legislative session arrived, and our final meeting was more than a week in the past. While we hadn’t received any updates and were feeling left in the dark after so much conversation, we knew something would have to happen this day. The morning started with a flurry of activity and substitute bill 3 came out. This change removed most of the characteristics but left height and weight in the wording, which felt like it was part making a concession and part making sure we knew it was still about our bodies. A poke in the eye.

There were two sessions left scheduled for the day, so I went to sit in the Senate gallery to be ready to hear debate when the bill was brought up. I posted on social media that I was there, and the bill could be heard at any time, and because of that received a message that the bill wasn’t going to be heard until after 5 p.m., the end of the candidate filing period.

At 3:30, as I was watching the proceedings, Senators Kitchen and Riebe waved at me, and then I received a text to be their guest on the Senate floor. I accepted and went down as it gave me an opportunity to discuss the bill with them and those around them. Sitting across the aisle was Sen. Anderegg, who I have had a lot of discussions with and find this is a topic that he struggles with, and we had a good discussion. Sens. Thatcher, Iwamoto, Kennedy, Escamilla, and Davis all stopped to talk with me. Sen Weiler indicated he would be a no vote, as his committee stance. The first of the two sessions ended at 5:30 p.m. and the bill hadn’t yet come up.

After the break, we discussed whether I should be on the floor or if it was better if I returned to the gallery and I was invited to stay on the floor. We hoped that my presence on the floor as the bill was debated could soften the tone of some voices.

At 8:30 p.m. was when the bomb dropped. Substitute bill 4 came out and was putting a ban in place with a caveat that if a court enjoined it, then we would revert to the commission that had been in the bill. This caught us, and apparently, all the Democrats off guard. We were frantically reading it and discussing what we saw. The commission with all its problems was no longer being discussed and instead it was all about the ban. This is not the Utah Way!

As the bill came up, the Democrats requested the bill be circled, a method to pause action, so that they could have 15 minutes to read the bill and caucus on it. Their request was voted down. The debate was long, and the Democrat Senators were amazing in their support and voice on the community’s behalf. I can’t thank them enough for their words, understanding, and vigor in the debate. Sen Thatcher gave an emotional speech on how transgender youth touched him and we should be giving them love instead. He mentioned the SafeUT app recognizing the impact this change could have on our youth.

In the back of the chamber were Democrat representatives as the House was on its break. They were listening in and discussing strategy and I walked back and talked with them. Always a champion on our side and two I engage with a lot, Reps Dailey-Provost and Stoddard, and I sympathized. Rep Bennion, a parent of a transgender youth, and I shared tears and hugged. Rep Briscoe shared his heartful thoughts. I looked to my left and saw Rep Judkins to the side, whom I have had many amazing discussions with, and we shared a look of sorrow.

On the Senate floor, there was some painful wording coming out of some senators. “Male biology” is the misdirection used to attack transgender girls, and it was used voraciously, which had me wishing I could shout out loud how wrong that was. There were points that were sometimes de-humanizing, including comparing our participation to a race between fillies and stallions. The debate was hard to hear.

As the vote happened, there were a few who stated they were voting no due to disagreeing with the process the bill went through. They didn’t like the lack of community input and debate on its merits. The bill passed 16–13. Immediately, the governor announced that he was planning to veto the bill. With that announcement, I heard the House was discussing whether to even bring it up for a vote. I felt immediate gratitude to the governor for his continued love for our youth and consideration of the harm placed on them.

As I walked out of the chambers, I received many hugs. Once outside, the Equality Utah team was there, and you could feel how it impacted everyone. A friend with a transgender youth had been in the gallery and said they couldn’t go listen in on the House as it had been too much of an emotional drain already. Immediately I was asked to do interviews, which is how it will always work, but you are caught in a very emotional time. It becomes hard to process your words, and maybe that is a good thing.

We decided to go off-site to strategize instead of sit in the House gallery due to the bombshell change and subsequent governor’s announcement. We viewed by video as the House proceeded. It was a much shorter debate in that chamber, likely due to the knowledge of the pending veto. The bill passed 46–29 to then head to the governor, and at press time, we are waiting for him to receive it.

I am left feeling a lot to process this session. We usually come into a session opposing bills and have had great success, so this was certainly different. A lot of continued work was put in throughout the year, not only in those meetings with the sponsor, but with many others so that we could educate and try and have a fair path. Then, in the end, all that work was ignored, and it became a full attack on our youth.

I do believe our work and all the impactful stories the community shared with their legislators did change some minds, which contributed to the current veto-proof vote results. We need to keep this up. Progress isn’t always as apparent, and we must remind ourselves of that.

This article is part of processing my feelings, and as I look into the year as the pandemic lifts, I hope that all of us can come together and process this as a community so we can proudly move forward.

Sue Robbins sits on the Equality Utah Transgender Advisory Council and is a past Board Chair of the Utah Pride Center and Transgender Education Advocates of Utah.

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