West High students walk out to protest HB11: ‘Trans kids belong in sports’

Students say they are being discriminated against in school and want lawmakers to listen to their experiences.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rowan Stewart, 14, takes a turn to address fellow students at West High School during a staged walkout on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 to protest HB11, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

As two students circled the crowd in front of West High School during a walkout against HB11 Wednesday, they debated where to stand.

One student suggested they stand with their gay friends, but the other was concerned they shouldn’t since they aren’t gay.

“Today you are,” the first student said. “Today you are standing with the gays.”

The bill, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports, was passed into law through an override by the Utah Legislature on March 25, despite being vetoed by Gov. Spencer Cox.

“We’re here to show that as much as you want us gone, we’re not going anywhere,” said Mar Arellano, a 18-year-old student at West.

The crowd erupted in cheers at the words of Arellano, who is nonbinary. Arellano and other members of West’s Queer Student Association organized the walkout with approval by administrators.

Students chanted “HB11 has got to go,” “Trans kids belong in sports,” and “Trans youth are valid” between speeches delivered by other West High students.

Speakers used a megaphone to share experiences of being misgendered and discriminated against. Some held aloft signs that read “Let us live our lives” and “Validate trans youth.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High School students chant “trans youth are valid!” as they wave a transgender flag during a staged walkout on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 to protest HB11, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

Ray Curfew, a 14-year-old who is in 8th grade at West, declared to the crowd, “I am a proud trans man!” and hid his face with emotion after the crowd responded with a roar.

Curfew is a figure skater. He said that the Legislature’s actions made him feel confused about what level of skating he should participate in. “I want this to go away,” Curfew said. “I just want people to do what they please.”

Being misgendered is common for kids growing up in Utah, said 14-year-old Rowan Stewart, who identifies as nonbinary.

Another student, 15-year-old Dani Maalaelu, said harms caused by government leaders against trans students are not felt just in Utah. She pointed to a bill in Florida that bans classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity, labeled by some as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. There also are bans and proposed bans against gender-affirming medical treatments for transgender students in Texas and elsewhere.

“If they care so much about us, the kids, like they say, then why do they harm us with these bills?” Maalaelu asked.

Maalaelu asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had been discriminated against because of sexuality or gender. Several students timidly lifted their hands.

“If we do not step up and speak up, they’re just going to keep hurting us,” she said.

Sadi Nelson-Stippich, 16, said the idea for the protest arose after members of the Queer Student Association discussed discrimination they had seen and experienced at West High.

“There’s already been so many laws, so many bills against us,” Arellano added. “There’s already been so many people shutting our voices down. … Like, yeah, you guys [legislators] are in charge of a lot of things, but did you guys ever think about how it’s going to affect us?”

Arellano said one of their best friends, who is a transgender male, wanted to join the track and field team at West when he finished middle school.

While HB11 does not prohibit his participation, “the most important person in my life is going to get shut down,” Arellano predicted. “He’s going to get discriminated against, and for what? Because he wants to be himself?”

Arellano said they wanted to show queer and transgender students throughout the country that even if they aren’t out, there are people who will support them.

The override of HB11 showed transgender Utah kids that the Legislature does not care about them, Arellano said.

“You guys are showing us that no matter what we’ve done to be here, no matter how many people have fought in the past for us to be here and for us to stay here ... you guys keep trying to shut us down. And for what? What about us scares you?” Arellano asked.

The walkout meant students were marked absent for missing second period, but their parents can call to have the absence excused, said Salt Lake City spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.