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Hundreds of Utahns protest against 'trans bathroom bill' at Utah Capitol

A group of people standing on the steps of the Utah Capitol, many with trans flags and signs. The largest visible sign says "hands off trans lives!"
Duck Thurgood
Protestors gathered at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday to protest H.B. 257, which has been criticized for restricting trans people's access to public bathrooms and changing rooms.

Over 300 trans Utahns and allies braved the rain and cold Thursday afternoon to protest on the steps of the Utah Capitol, where H.B. 257, Sex-Based Designations for Privacy, Anti-Bullying, and Women’s Opportunities, known as the “trans bathroom bill,” was being voted on inside.

It was one of several rallies at the Capitol and across the state within a handful of days before the bill passed the House and Senate on Friday.

What the bill does

The bill, which has had substantial changes after debate and fear of lawsuits, would prevent students at public K-12 schools from using bathrooms or changing rooms that differ from the sex they were assigned at birth. Those restrictions also apply to anyone in public changing rooms.

The exceptions to these rules are for intersex people or trans people who have changed the sex on their birth certificate and have also gotten a primary sex characteristic surgery, such as phalloplasty. The bill does not state what bathroom must be used for those who have done one but not the other, or requirements for nonbinary individuals (some of whom may have an X gender marker on their birth certificate rather than M or F).

H.B. 257 also focuses on reporting and criminalizing lewd behavior, voyeurism and loitering in privacy spaces. Penalties range from class B misdemeanors for general loitering to a third-degree felony for committing an act of lewdness in a sex-designated privacy space that doesn’t align with the person’s legal sex.

Rep. Kera Birkeland and Sen. Daniel McCay, the bill’s sponsors, have said the bill is meant to protect women from bullying and harassment in privacy spaces.

The backlash

The bill is facing backlash for discriminating against trans people, especially trans youth, and making public bathrooms more dangerous and less accessible for trans people in general.

Though the bill’s sponsors have denied targeting trans people, the trans population is likely to be disproportionately affected by the bill and some of the higher penalties because they often use bathrooms of the “opposite sex."

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. McCay justified the bill by giving examples of harassment and assault in privacy spaces. When questioned, he couldn't provide evidence that any of the cases were perpetrated by trans individuals.

"The supposed problem here is based on a myth,” said Kelly Potter, a transgender women and professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. “And the result, in some cases, will be to put trans people, trans youth, trans girls in the very same precarious position that Birkeland erroneously believes face cisgender women.”

The bill would uniquely impact trans youth, especially because of two bills from last year's session. S.B. 16 banned minors from getting gender-affirming hormones or surgeries, while S.B. 93 prohibited minors from changing their gender marker on their birth certificate.

Trans and gender non-conforming youth are at significantly increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts or actions than their peers. A study by the Journal of Adolescent Health, done before the nationwide push towards anti-trans legislation, found 91% of trans youth patients reported depression, 56% reported suicidal ideation and 31% reported a suicide attempt.

LGBTQ+ advocates and organizations have expressed worry that this bill will lead to an increase in those numbers in Utah.

Adults in Utah can legally meet the requirements in the bill for public changing rooms. However, primary sex characteristic surgeries such as vaginoplasty and phalloplasty can take years to be approved and are also expensive — according to Healthline, vaginoplasty costs from $10,000 to $30,000. Phalloplasty can cost from $20,000 to $50,000, or even as high as $150,000.

Some trans people, including nonbinary people, choose not to get these surgeries because of other medical issues or personal preference.

“I think it needs to be understood that ... to be trans does not mean you have to undergo surgery,” said Jakey Siolo, director of the Nuanua Collective, a Utah-based LGBTQ+ organization for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.

A 2019 study found that between 4-13% of trans people in the U.S. get genital surgery.

Siolo and other speakers at the rally also expressed worry about the bill’s use of community reporting, some of which must be reported to law enforcement.

“To have community be in charge of policing bodies will create almost more division and hate and harm and violence that we already see towards trans people,” Siolo said.

Rallies and community response

Utahns protested and rallied throughout the week against H.B. 257, including a sit-in at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, a walk-out at Utah State University and another Capitol protest on Thursday. Though the bill went through several substitutions, the community response from the LGBTQ+ community and allies remained the same.

“Any infringement upon the rights of transgender non-conforming people to use public restrooms, use public changing facilities, and therefore access public life is unacceptable,” said Winona, a transgender woman who spoke at Thursday’s rally. “We demand all of our human rights, not some of them in some places.”

Speakers also opposed H.B. 261, Equal Opportunity Initiatives, which would end diversity, equity and inclusion centers, and emphasized the importance of intersectionality and protecting all oppressed people, not just the trans community.

Along with the planned speakers, over a dozen trans Utahns spoke spontaneously at the rally, speaking of their queer journeys, their fear and anger over anti-trans legislation and sentiment, the importance of intersectionality and the importance of banding together in the face of transphobia and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.

“If you wish to fight for a better future, that future starts with your siblings next to you,” said one speaker. “So find those who you can help, find the ways that you can stand up, take care of yourself.”

Above all, the rally and those like it declared that no matter what, the queer and trans communities would continue to join together and be their authentic selves.

“Now more than ever, we must stand in strong solidarity amongst community. Lean into your queer joy, lean into your trans joy,” Siolo said. “There will not be a day in Salt Lake City where we wake up and all of a sudden it's okay to express ourselves publicly. We get to make that day by doing things publicly until who we are is simply the way things are.”

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.