‘Is this ever going to change?’: Trans teens ask Utah Legislature not to pass more restrictions

Rep. Kera Birkland said she couldn’t point to a police report or “anything like that” that indicated transgender Utahns were engaging in inappropriate behavior in restrooms.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Faith, a high school student who spoke against Rep. Kera Birkeland's bill to narrow Utah's legal definitions of sex to exclude transgender people, at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. The Tribune agreed to only use Faith's first name because she feared retaliation for speaking out.

Faith shook her foot nervously as she sat in a swivel chair, waiting for her allotted two minutes to address the 16 state lawmakers of the Utah House Business and Labor Committee sitting at a raised table before her.

A 17-year-old, Faith had gotten in her car as soon as the bell rang at her high school Wednesday afternoon and drove a half hour on slushy roads to the Utah Capitol, she said, where lawmakers were again debating laws that have the potential to impact her everyday life because she’s transgender.

This year, the Legislature is considering two bills that would limit transgender Utahns’ access to restrooms and locker rooms. The bill Faith spoke to, introduced by Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, of Morgan, could have a much more sweeping effect.

If passed, “Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying and Women’s Opportunities,” or HB257, would legally define a female as “an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions in a way that could produce ova,” and a male as “an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to fertilize the ova of a female.”

It’s unclear how far-reaching the bill, which would amend numerous areas of Utah code, might be. Who is allowed to enter sex-specific restrooms and locker rooms, as well as who can access state-funded domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, would be dictated under the bill.

Watch: Proposed restrictions for transgender Utahns gets first debate at Legislature

The bill would also require schools to work with parents of transgender students who wish to access a space that aligns with their gender identity to create a “privacy plan.”

Birkeland has so far declined an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune about the bill.

“Many kids in our districts, they’re already using [privacy plans] because it works,” Birkeland told colleagues Wednesday. “It takes care of the individual child’s needs. It’s not othering a child any more than a child who has had cancer and has now body image issues, or anything else. You’re othering them if you try to give them accommodations, to make them feel better.”

She continued, “How do we express people’s concerns and show kindness, compassion, and give them accommodations without then being accused of othering?”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, presents her bill to narrow Utah's legal definitions of sex to exclude transgender people (HB 257) at a meeting of the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Faith’s high school has laid out requirements similar to the “privacy plan” outlined in the bill, she told lawmakers. The accommodations could have outed her, she said — or made other students aware that she’s transgender without her expressly telling them.

“I don’t want that to happen to other people,” Faith told committee members. “I’m fine with it because I learned to have tough skin. But there are people who are not really in the best mental state, and getting bullied because someone found out you’re trans is not going to be the best thing.”

The Salt Lake Tribune agreed not to publish her last name out of safety concerns.

After the high school became aware of Faith’s identity, she was told to begin using a medical pass because “there hasn’t been any trouble with me yet, but it’s to avoid trouble,” she said in an interview with The Tribune.

Initially, Faith said it was a relief to have to use the medical pass, because she worried about choosing between going to the women’s restroom and potentially making some of her classmates feel awkward, or the uneasy feeling of going to the men’s restroom.

“But now that I’m slightly more comfortable with myself and my presentation, it’s starting to give the feeling that, oh, that does not feel right,” Faith said, adding, “Making me use the medical bathroom for the comfort of others is just wrong.”

Faith uses her medical pass to go to the restroom during class, missing teachers’ instruction because she said she typically has to walk about a quarter-mile to the restroom the school has set aside for her and there’s not enough time to make it between bells.

Wednesday wasn’t Faith’s first time pleading with lawmakers not to pass a bill that targets the transgender community. Last year, she joined other members of the transgender community and allies in protesting a ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.

“My first time I didn’t have a script,” Faith recollected. “I didn’t do much of anything — I said, ‘I think this bill isn’t what’s recommended for the people of Utah and me and my trans brothers and sisters.’ I couldn’t get any words out.”

This time, though, she had written a speech beforehand, so it wasn’t as nerve-racking. Other school-age youth showed up to share how they felt about the bill.

Another young trans student, 15-year-old Alex Williams, pointed out to lawmakers Wednesday that trans people are statistically more likely to be sexually assaulted than cisgender people. A 2021 study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that transgender people are four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crimes.

Williams said the Legislature is “punishing trans individuals for the crimes of cisgender people” and “it puts me at risk.”

When asked by Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Brian King if she had any documentation of inappropriate behavior in restrooms that is “tied to trans issues,” Birkeland responded, “Unfortunately, today, I can’t provide a police report or anything like that.”

“Is this ever going to change?”

The two teens were among dozens of transgender Utahns who spoke in opposition to the bill, some telling lawmakers about their experiences dehydrating themselves to avoid using public restrooms and stopping their cars under overpasses to avoid rest stops on road trips.

Many talked about how restrictions on the transgender community and efforts to portray them as predators have harmed their mental health, and exposed them to threats of physical attacks.

Abigail Cook, a 12-year-old who said she is a junior intern at the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, told the committee, “We fully support this bill.” She continued, “Me, personally, I do not want a man who says that they are a women in the bathroom, or a locker room, or when we are going to do sports I would not like them to get undressed in front of me.”

President of the right-leaning Utah Parents United, Corinne Johnson, told lawmakers her organization also backs the bill, and said it asked for such guidance from the Utah State Board of Education in 2021. Johnson said the bill “aligns with the principles of equality, fairness and individual rights.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, presents her bill to narrow Utah's legal definitions of sex to exclude transgender people (HB 257) at a meeting of the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Birkeland told the committee that restrooms are a topic that “parents have reached out to the state board about more than any other topic in this state.”

“I think we’re here to solve concerns,” Birkeland said, “and I don’t think we wait until an 8-year-old is raped or molested by a predator. I think we act in good faith, with respect, finding accommodations that show compassion all along the way.”

Reacting to Birkeland’s proposal, Democratic Sen. Jen Plumb, a physician, has introduced a bill that would keep schools from requiring any student to undress in front of others, and that they provide private spaces for students to change in.

HB257, which was approved by the party Wednesday mostly along party lines, will move on to the full House of Representatives for consideration before potentially being passed along to the Senate.

And while other students who don’t share her identity hang out with friends or play video games after school, Faith said she’ll be watching and waiting to see whether the Legislature’s next move will change the rest of her life in Utah.

“I’ve cried wondering, ‘Is this ever going to change?’” Faith said. “Like, what’s going to be my options when this happens, what’s my options when this is happening? What’s my current options? It’s caused a lot of panic.”