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Sen. Daniel Thatcher stood up for trans kids, even though it may end his political career, Robert Gehrke writes

“If I lose my race, I lose my race standing for what I believe in,” the senator declared in a remarkable display of political courage.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, speaks as the Utah Legislature voted to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of HB11, which bars transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2022.

Those watching the Senate debate whether to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of a bill banning transgender girls from high school sports got to witness something remarkable in our current political climate — genuine courage.

As other Republican lawmakers who had opposed the ban scurried to save their political lives, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-Magna, stuck to his principles, one of just four — Reps. Robert Spendlove and Mike Winder and Sen. Todd Weiler are the others — to do so. In the process, he likely torched his political career.

That’s because Thatcher is the only one of the four facing a primary challenge this year. Three candidates have filed against him, all from the conservative right. And legislative leaders put him into a much more conservative district with their new maps, punishment for his track record of bucking the party.

So faced with a vote on the highly charged issue — one where his vote would have done nothing to change the outcome — it would have been easy and politically expedient to fall in line, vote for the override, bolster his political outlook and live to fight another day.

Heck, he could even have just not shown up.

Instead, with a lot to lose and nothing to gain, he stood on the floor and gave an eloquent and impassioned argument against the bill, recognizing it meant he might not be back in the body next year.

He started with the obvious — that the bill would hurt transgender kids, whether they play sports or not. As an advocate for suicide prevention, Thatcher said he has grown to know and love those kids, and it “actively harms them” to have a group of people who don’t know them debating their rights.

It is unconstitutional, violating an oath he and other senators took to defend the founding charter. As has been the case in 11 other states, it will be blocked from taking effect, meaning there will be none of the touted benefits.

Ultimately it will be struck down, he said, but not before taxpayers are stuck with potentially several million dollars in court costs. The ACLU said Friday that a lawsuit is “inevitable,” and following the override, the Legislature appropriated $500,000 for the legal defense.

It could cost the state its chance to host the NBA All-Star Game, the Winter Olympics and who-knows-what other economic opportunities.

It harms female athletes whose bodies now might be scrutinized and challenged if there is suspicion they are not feminine enough.

“We want to protect our girls, but this bill hurts our girls... It hurts the trans community; I think it violates the constitution. And I think it wastes money,” he said. “It’s political theater.”

He could not, in good conscience, vote for the bill because — as former Senate President Michael Waddoups once advised him — the first time you vote against your conscience, you can never go back.

“And if I lose my race, I lose my race standing for what I believe in, like I always have,” he said. “In my world, conservative doesn’t mean turning your back on your principles.”

I started covering the Legislature nearly 25 years ago, and in that time, I have seen rare instances where lawmakers, despite the potential consequences, are compelled by their conscience to act. This was one that will stick with me.

And it’s one that I hope those transgender kids targeted by this bill got to see. Because even though they have to show that same kind of courage every single day, just to fight through the animosity and obstacles thrown at them, it’s valuable for them to know they have friends and allies willing to lay it on the line and suffer whatever consequences may come because it’s the right thing to do.

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