Robert Gehrke: Anti-trans bills pose test for Utah’s Spencer Cox

Equality Utah calls Utah’s governor “a true champion for LGBTQ youth.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

When he was lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox garnered national — even international — attention and acclaim for a heartfelt speech after the Pulse Nightclub massacre left 49 dead.

“How did you feel when you heard that 49 people had been gunned down by a self-proclaimed terrorist? That’s the easy question,” Cox said at the time. “Here’s the hard one: Did that feeling change when you found out the shooting was at a gay bar at 2 a.m. in the morning? If that feeling changed, then we’re doing something wrong.”

It was a gesture and a call for compassion that was needed and appreciated, said Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, which advocates for LGBTQ Utahns.

“Our community was grieving … and he stood by our side,” Williams told me Tuesday. “Since then, Gov. Cox has become a true champion for LGBTQ youth.”

Two years ago, he was praised for meeting with young activists after a bill banning conversion therapy — trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation — fell apart in the Legislature and then he worked with Gov. Gary Herbert to end the practice last year.

In 2018, he helped open the new Encircle resource center for LGBTQ youth and took the stage the next day to welcome attendees to the LoveLoud festival.

Last month, he released his One Utah Roadmap for his first 500 days in office, in which he set out goals of expanding opportunities for Utah minorities, including LGBTQ communities, and expanding access to mental health resources.

“This is unprecedented for a Republican governor,” Williams said. “We have not seen that level of GOP support in other states across the country.”

Indeed, Cox has said the right things. Now, for his first time as governor, Cox has the opportunity to back those statements with action by vetoing (or promising to veto) a pair of bills targeting transgender Utahns.

The one that has received the most attention is Rep. Kera Birkeland’s HB302, which would prohibit athletes who have transitioned from male to female from competing with their female peers.

The Morgan Republican has tried to justify the bill as a way to protect women’s sports, but has been unable to identify a single instance where transgender athletes have competed alongside female athletes. (Two track athletes from Southern Utah University said they had to compete against an athlete who was formerly male, but Birkeland’s bill no longer addresses college athletics).

What HB302 actually is is a cut-and-paste version of legislation that the anti-gay organization Alliance Defending Freedom — classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — has convinced lawmakers in 17 states to advance.

Birkeland is playing along because scare tactics have turned the issue into an easy way for lawmakers to score points with their base — despite the fact that the bill, according to legislative attorneys in Utah, is likely to be found unconstitutional (as a similar law has been in Idaho) when, not if, it is challenged in court.

What’s more, as my colleague Josh Newman highlighted this week, it could harm Utah’s efforts to host major sporting events. When North Carolina passed its anti-transgender bathroom legislation, the NCAA pulled several events from the state until the Legislature rescinded the bulk of the law.

“HB302 is about exclusion,” Williams said. “It’s about telling a group of marginalized transgender children that you don’t belong, you can’t play, you’re a threat. And that sends a dangerous message to a vulnerable population.”

The other anti-transgender bill, HB92, would prohibit doctors from prescribing hormone blockers to minors, an early treatment for a patient who is transitioning. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, seems to presume that doctors are passing out hormone blockers to minors on a whim, which is not the case.

A proposed substitute of the bill would only prohibit surgical procedures, which are even more rare among minors. “It’s a solution seeking a problem,” Williams said, “and it’s the Legislature trying to get between a doctor and a patient.”

This bill, like Birkeland’s, is the product of the Alliance Defending Freedom and again is likely to be met with constitutional challenges.

Both bills have a long way to go this session. Birkeland’s bill narrowly passed a House committee and will likely be voted on by the House this week; Shipp’s legislation is still awaiting a hearing.

I contacted Cox’s office Tuesday morning to ask the governor’s views on the legislation and they didn’t get back to me.

And that’s unfortunate, because there are plenty of reasons to oppose the bill. But perhaps the most compelling is that we, as Utahns, are not going to let politicians score petty points at the expense of the mental and physical health of our young people.

It’s the wrong direction for us as a state and our new governor, who has always talked the talk, has a golden opportunity to walk the walk.