Utah law has and will cause violence, harassment, abuse, and stigma

In 2016, a controversial transgender “bathroom ban” in North Carolina ignited a firestorm of national outrage and sparked significant repercussions. Prominent figures like Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, and Nick Jonas canceled performances in protest, while major corporations like Deutsche Bank and PayPal halted expansion plans in the state. Even the NCAA took a stand, relocating championship games to demonstrate opposition to the discriminatory legislation.

Fast forward eight years, and a similar bill passed in Utah during its legislative session. However, the response both within and beyond Utah’s borders seemed notably subdued compared to the uproar witnessed in North Carolina. Utah’s largest businesses refrained from making public statements regarding the legislation. Moreover, the Sundance Film Festival, an event drawing tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors and substantial economic activity to the state, had just concluded without any major disruptions. Adding to the contrast, Bad Bunny, a global sensation and queer icon, was scheduled to headline a concert in Salt Lake City in the coming weeks, and Salt Lake City was set to host NCAA men’s basketball tournament games the following month.

Surprisingly, representatives for entities like the NCAA, Bad Bunny, and Sundance declined to provide immediate comments on the situation. This subdued reaction to Utah’s “bathroom bill,” coupled with similar legislation passed in nine other states since North Carolina, suggests a shift in the broader societal response to such measures.

Allison Scott, who actively campaigned against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” described the lukewarm response to Utah’s legislation as “very telling.” She noted the concerning trend of such bills proliferating over the years, indicating not just a lack of progress but also regression in terms of LGBTQ+ rights.

Utah’s House Bill 257, titled “Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying, and Women’s Opportunities,” places restrictions on transgender individuals’ access to bathrooms in public schools and government-operated buildings. The legislation mandates that gender designation aligns with an individual’s genitalia at birth rather than their gender identity. However, exceptions are provided for transgender individuals who have undergone genital surgery and changed their gender marker on their birth certificates to match their identity.

Critics argue that the law will endanger transgender youth, while supporters contend that it addresses concerns about potential misconduct in public restrooms. Rep. Kera Birkeland, the bill’s sponsor, asserts that it aims to close loopholes for predators and does not unfairly target transgender individuals. She emphasizes that the legislation is not meant to encourage vigilante behavior but rather to ensure the safety and privacy of all individuals in public facilities.

However, transgender journalist and advocate Erin Reed pushes back against these assertions, arguing that the legislation will inevitably create disruptions and challenges for transgender individuals in accessing public restrooms. Reed highlights the complexity of enforcing the law’s provisions and suggests that it may lead to confrontations and misunderstandings, particularly in situations where individuals’ gender identity does not align with their assigned sex at birth.

Beyond Utah and North Carolina, nine other states have enacted similar legislation in recent years, albeit with less fanfare and public attention. These laws predominantly restrict transgender individuals’ access to restrooms, particularly in school and government settings. However, North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” known as HB 2, went a step further by prohibiting transgender individuals from using restrooms and changing facilities that corresponded with their gender identity in most public spaces.

Dr. Emily Gilreath, an expert on LGBTQ+ issues, observes that people are less likely to mobilize against discrimination when their own interests are not directly impacted. This tendency reflects a broader aspect of human nature, wherein individuals may prioritize personal convenience or avoid confrontation, even in the face of injustice.

Furthermore, studies indicate that familiarity with transgender individuals significantly influences attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights. Those who know at least one transgender person are more likely to support policies and measures that protect transgender rights. This suggests that personal connections and exposure to diverse perspectives play a crucial role in shaping attitudes and fostering empathy towards marginalized communities.

However, fear of backlash from conservative groups and right-wing influencers has also contributed to the muted response to LGBTQ+ issues in recent years. Reed points to instances where threats of violence and intimidation tactics have silenced individuals and corporations alike. The climate of fear created by these extremist elements has deterred some from speaking out or taking decisive action in support of LGBTQ+ rights.

For example, conservative provocateurs with large social media followings have been known to incite outrage over LGBTQ+ issues, often leading to harassment and threats directed towards those targeted in their posts. In some cases, these threats have escalated to the point of violence, creating a chilling effect on public discourse and activism.

Reed highlights the case of Budweiser factories receiving bomb threats after a transgender influencer’s partnership with Bud Light sparked controversy on social media. Similarly, Target faced backlash and threats after removing LGBTQ+-themed merchandise from its shelves in response to pressure from conservative groups.

In Utah, State School Board member Natalie Cline incited her social media following after posting a photo of a high school basketball flyer that showed a masculine-looking girl. The reaction was virulent enough that the high school had to offer physical protection for the student.

Moreover, the political landscape has become increasingly polarized, with LGBTQ+ rights becoming a contentious issue for both major political parties. Republican lawmakers, in particular, have pursued a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in various states, often targeting transgender individuals specifically.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine faced criticism from within his own party after vetoing a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors. Former President Donald Trump publicly expressed his disapproval of DeWine’s decision, signaling the challenges faced by Republican politicians who deviate from the party’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues.

Utah Governor Spencer Cox, who previously vetoed legislation aimed at limiting transgender students’ participation in school sports, ultimately signed the “bathroom bill” into law amid mounting pressure from conservative groups and lawmakers. The swift passage of the legislation reflects the shifting dynamics within the political landscape, with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment gaining traction among certain segments of the population.

Despite these setbacks, activists and allies continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and push back against discriminatory legislation. However, the road ahead remains challenging, with entrenched opposition and a hostile political climate posing significant obstacles to progress.

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