Protesters say Utah’s transgender sports bill is an act of legislative ‘violence’

The legislation would require transgender students to gain a commission’s approval before playing in sports aligning with their gender identities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) More than 200 people gather on the steps of the Capitol for a rally, speaking out against Rep. Kera Birkeland's transgender sports bill, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

Speaking into a megaphone, organizer Mina Sadoon asked the crowd a question.

“When trans kids are under attack, what do we do?”

In answer, more than 120 voices shouted in unison, “Stand up. Fight back!”

The raucous crowd assembled outside Utah’s Capitol on Friday to protest a pair of bills that are working their way through the State Legislature, HB11 and HB127.

HB11, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, would force transgender students who want to play school sports aligning with their gender identity to first gain permission from an activities commission. The panel would evaluate students’ physical attributes — such as height, weight, flexibility, wingspan and hip-to-knee ratio — to determine eligibility.

The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp, would prohibit surgeons from performing transgender procedures on minors.

More than a dozen people took turns speaking at the protest, which lasted more than an hour, despite inclement weather.

According to the speakers, both pieces of legislation would have drastically negative — and even tragic — impacts on Utah’s LGBTQ community. They say members of the Legislature have presented the bills as a way of protecting people and preserving fairness, while at the same time denying trans people of both.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ash Meservy joins more than 200 people on the steps of the Capitol to speak out against Rep. Kera Birkeland's transgender sports bill, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

Reading a script written by her friend Chloe Tinney, Sadoon said, “[Utah’s legislators] have weaponized their own willful ignorance and bigotry to justify violations of our basic human rights. … No way they care about us.”

Many of the speakers’ comments were aimed at HB11, which is much further along in the legislative process than its counterpart. The bill passed the House and was approved in a Senate committee Thursday. It will now be considered on the Senate floor, its final hurdle before heading to the governor’s desk.

The measure has drawn opposition from both conservative groups and LGBTQ advocates, with the former arguing for a complete ban on transgender girls in female school athletics and the latter contending that the bill’s commission process would be belittling and emotionally scarring for transgender children.

“This is something that’s so hateful and so awful that it could definitely cause — well, I know it’s going to cause — an up-spike in depression and suicide within the trans community, especially children,” Sadoon told The Salt Lake Tribune following the protest.

However, Senate President Stuart Adams has said he is in favor of the legislation.

“It’s got, you know, some, some real positive attributes to it. And one of the most significant attributes is the fact that it uses a commission,” the Layton Republican told reporters on Thursday.

He said he doesn’t think the bill necessarily needs to list the physical characteristics that a commission would consider when evaluating a student’s eligibility for a sport, adding that the legislation “probably has some refining yet to do.”

Adams added that the proposed commission would avoid making “political” or “subjective” decisions over whether a transgender athlete can participate in a sport.

In a rebuttal, Sadoon said, “Trans kids who have access to gender-affirming care during puberty don’t develop the ‘biological advantages’ that so many of the bill supporters use to justify their vote.”

Multiple speakers on Friday also spoke to fears that HB11 and HB127 would open doors in the future to more extreme measures against the LGBTQ community.

“Bills like this, though they might not seem inherently violent, are incredibly violent,” a speaker identified as Robin said. “Bills like this open doors for more direct legislative violence, like we’re seeing in Texas right now.”

Many in Utah’s trans community feel that their voices aren’t being recognized at the legislative table, according to the speakers. And Sadoon said that during Thursday’s committee meeting, many public comments were left unheard.

At Friday’s protest, one speaker said, “Why do [legislators] get to speak for us when they’ve never spoken to us.”

When asked what she would like to tell the state’s legislators, Sadoon said, “I’d tell them to talk to trans people. I’d tell them to get to know trans people.”

She said she is hopeful that the legislation will stall this year but expects to see a reworded version of the bill next general session.

Salt Lake Tribune reporters Kim Bojórquez and Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.