Every day last spring, her young transgender son came home from elementary school crying.
Emily reported the bullying, she said, but felt “nothing was happening.” And looking ahead, she worried about the ways her elected officials have worked “against the trans community,” she said, “versus having bills for the trans community.”
The Wasatch Front mother decided she needed to find a more supportive place to raise her son. They’ve left the state — but they haven’t gone alone.
In an extraordinary move of support, seven households of her family have relocated from Utah to the Pacific Northwest or plan to in coming months.
“We didn’t feel like it’s fair to this one child, that he should be without his grandparents, without his uncles and aunts, without his cousins,” Emily’s mother said. “We want him to have the family he was born into.”
The Salt Lake Tribune agreed to use pseudonyms for Emily, 32, and her son, Eli, because he is not fully out to everyone in his life.
As the family shares their story, the Utah Legislature is again considering regulating how transgender students can participate in school sports. Dr. Jennifer Plumb, a pediatric emergency medicine physician who spoke against HB11, said later in an interview that she has seen transgender children “coming in in crisis” to the emergency room, afraid for their safety and feeling like society “just wants them to go away.”
Last year, Utah lawmakers tried to limit young people’s access to medication that suppresses puberty and other gender-affirming health care and bar transgender girls from female school sports. In 2014, there was an unsuccessful bill that would have required students to use the bathroom associated with the gender they were born with.
Utah lawmakers who have worked on these controversial bills say they are trying to support fairness in girls’ sports and to protect children from making major medical decisions that could affect their older selves.
The Beehive State is not alone in trying to pass legislation or adopt policies criticized as harmful to transgender people. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott drew backlash when he ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate reports of gender-confirming care for transgender kids as child abuse.
Emily already knew her own experience of being bisexual in Utah. And when she joined some Facebook groups, she said, she was horrified by the stories that transgender people were sharing from her home state.
With help from her younger brother, Emily created a spreadsheet, evaluating different states “where they had the most trans rights, especially for children,” she said. She also factored in accessibility to hormone replacement therapy and other transgender health care services, as well as cost of living.
“I know Utah is going to say, ‘Don’t let the door hit you.’ You know what I mean?” said Eli’s grandmother, who’s in her 50s. “But that’s the problem. Utah doesn’t care. The policies here, the attitudes are so harsh and not inclusive.”
Emily wants Utah’s leaders to know that “my kid being trans does not affect you. … I just want him to be able to be himself authentically, genuinely and happily. That’s it.”
‘I have to go’
Last spring, Emily’s son came to her and “told me he was a he.”
”He asked for a haircut and for his clothes to be changed,” she said. “We didn’t change the name because it was like at the end of the school year. He didn’t want to be fully out yet.”
Still, that last month of classes “was just awful,” she said. “...There was so much bullying. I was reporting it. Nothing was happening.”
Emily made up her mind to leave Utah, whether her relatives joined her or not. “I have to make this decision for my child,” she remembers thinking. “... I have to go.”
That was easier said than done, though. Emily lived “right around the corner” from her parents’ house, she said, and “I used to be over there every day.” When she first announced she was moving to Oregon — away from her children’s Nana and Papa — “it felt like the whole family was getting ripped apart.”
That is, until they realized they could all go together. Some of her relatives have already moved, while others, such as her mother, hope to be there in the coming months.
“I want to be there to help him grow and help him out as much as I can through his transition,” said Emily’s other younger brother.
Emily and her children moved to the Portland area in late August. When she called their new school district about enrollment, she cried.
“They gave me this whole spiel of everything they do to protect” her child, she said, explaining their “need to know” policy, and how “only the nurse, the principal and the teacher will know” her son is transgender.
“Then they asked me for pronouns, preferred name, everything,” she said. “So the day my kid started, they never misgendered. They never used the dead name. Nothing.”
When her son decided to use a different name shortly after the school year started, the staff at the school immediately started using the new name, too.
“It wasn’t this huge big, ‘Oh, that’s a pain in the butt. We’re not doing that. Oh, we don’t do pronouns. And what’s on the birth certificate is what we have to go by,’” she said. “... It was all just so smooth and awesome.”
The school even assigned her son a therapist, who he meets with weekly, “to make sure everything is going good,” she said. And the district connected her with resources for hormone replacement therapy and other help.
“They just fast-tracked it for me, like, helped me out in that area,” she said. “And I would never expect that from Utah.”
Since starting at his new school in Oregon, Emily said, her transgender son is “a lot happier” and doesn’t come home crying anymore.
“I don’t have to do like two hours of decompressing comfort time with him when he gets home, which I had to do before,” she said.
Instead, he can focus on anime and drawing — which his mom proudly notes that “he’s really good at” — and go on hikes and look forward to tumbling classes. “My kid is way better,” she said.
‘To live their authentic lives’
Working as a therapist in private practice with “the population that’s been targeted by [recent] bills,” Metzler said, they worry about “the bullying and mistreatment” that they hear happening in schools in the state.
Young people often take cues from adults, they said, such as from the transgender bills proposed by lawmakers and recent “inflammatory language” from religious leaders about taking up intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and “the doctrine of the family and ... marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”
These things create an atmosphere that leaves children feeling “less safe” and “less hope,” according to Metzler. Instead of “sowing the seeds of self-hatred,” they said, Utahns need to be “sowing the seeds of love.”
Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, argues that her bill related to school sports this session establishes a clear process and ensures a level playing field.
“House Bill 11, I feel like, creates the path to play for transgender participants, while preserving women’s sports,” Birkeland said at the Wednesday meeting of the Senate Business and Labor Committee, where her bill passed on a 4-3 vote.
Birkeland said she recognizes this is a “serious matter” that affects “people’s lives.” And while some may think her words are “disingenuous,” Birkeland assured attendees at the meeting that her efforts are “sincere.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, said his bill last session to restrict access to medical care was “about protecting children” from making life-altering decisions. (He has a similar bill this year, but it had not been heard in committee as of Wednesday afternoon, with less than two weeks of the session left.)
“When I raised my kids,” Shipp said in 2021, “they couldn’t even decide sometimes what to wear to school the next day.”
But Plumb, the doctor who recently testified against HB11, said listening to the debates in the Utah Legislature last year “crushed my soul.” Transgender children, she said, are talked about “as if they’re not even human.”
Plumb was speaking out in part, she said, on behalf of her own “amazing” teenage daughter, who is transgender. One of the things that Plumb said she has always enjoyed about living in the Beehive State is its emphasis on caring for children. But, she said, Utah has fallen short in supporting transgender children.
For Eli’s family, his grandmother said, it would be one thing if the family lived in a neighborhood like Sugar House, “where things are more inclusive,” or could enroll him in a private school. Even that, though, wouldn’t “guarantee that your child will be called his preferred gender,” she said.
“There’s nothing that says the school needs to refer to them by their chosen identity, their preferred identity. There’s nothing that, you know, that codifies this,” she said. “So we’re kind of just hoping that each school or each individual teacher has a policy. And that’s not enough when it’s your child and when it’s … their emotional and mental well-being.”
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, remembers the “moral panic” in Utah of the 1990s, when the Salt Lake City School District banned all extracurricular clubs rather than allowing a gay-straight alliance to form at East High School, and the debate reached the Legislature.
In the decades since, Utah has taken steps applauded by LGBTQ advocates, including banning conversion therapy and passing nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community in housing and employment, and repealing the so-called “no-promo homo” law, which prohibited positive discussion of homosexuality in the classroom. Last year, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that transgender Utahns can list their gender identity on state records.
And now, the Utah State Board of Education is in the editing and review process for new gender identity guidance for schools, after receiving more than 20,000 comments from the public earlier this year. The document addresses topics such as pronouns, preferred names, dress codes and extracurricular activities. It says that students should be able to use the restroom that “aligns with their consistently asserted gender identity.”
These proposed guidelines “wouldn’t have appeared in Utah 30 years ago,” let alone five years ago, Williams said at a virtual Pride Not Prejudice Learning Series discussion in early February with local LGBTQ organizations and advocates. “But they’re here now.”
There will likely be “some new battle” in the future, Williams said, “but 30 years from now, trans kids are going to be able to celebrate their lives and know … this is their home.”
“They don’t have to move out of state to live their authentic lives,” Williams said. “They can live it here in Utah.”
‘We’re not looking for an utopia’
There are things about Utah that they will miss, Eli’s grandmother said. The family loves outdoor activities in the state, from hiking to skiing to mountain biking.
“We feel we could spend the rest of our lives here exploring and still never see it all, and be completely amazed the rest of our lives,” she said.
And that was the plan. She and her husband recently bought a new house that they planned to spend their retirement in. Now, though, they’re putting it on the market.
One of her friends, 61-year-old Shawn Harris of Sandy, said in an interview that she is heartbroken to see her go. But Harris said she knows her friend “can’t bear to be away from [Emily and Eli],” and the move is “what’s best” for them all.
“They’re such a great family,” she said. “I’ll miss them so much.”
While Eli coming out as transgender was the “final straw” that led to their decisions to leave, family members already had qualms about living in Utah, his uncle and grandmother said. Their misgivings include the state’s track record on LGBTQ issues, such as banning same-sex marriage until a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional.
They also worry about attacks on reproductive rights; low per-pupil spending in education; the gender wage gap; environmental concerns, including air pollution, the drought and the shrinking Great Salt Lake; the housing crisis and homelessness; gerrymandering; and the high youth suicide rate. Ultimately, Utah is not a safe place for Eli, according to Emily.
“We know every state has its problems,” including Oregon, the grandmother said. “... We’re not looking for an utopia, certainly. But definitely whatever community we’re in, we want our voices heard.”
She was born and raised in “a very Mormon family,” she said, before she left the Latter-day Saint faith when she was 13. Raising her own family in Salt Lake County, “our neighbors’ children weren’t allowed to play with our kids because we weren’t LDS,” she said.
“I remember getting bullied a lot for not being Mormon, for my mom being a single mom,” Emily added. Remembering that experience makes Eli’s grandmother more worried about how he would be treated in Utah.
“We realize that being a loving, supportive family for a trans child isn’t enough,” she said. “... Children also need the love, support, encouragement and acceptance from their communities.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.