Utah transgender bill threatens millions in federal funds for sexual assault, domestic violence services

Utah’s Office for Victims of Crime received nearly $17 million in federal funding to provide care last year. HB257 puts such funding in jeopardy.

Each year, thousands of Utahns subjected to sexual assault and domestic violence find shelter, emotional support and legal help at crisis centers throughout the state.

But a new bill that would keep transgender people from accessing those services in Utah could lead to many of the already resource-starved facilities losing millions of dollars. For some of the state’s service providers, that could mean losing as much as 70% of their budget. In fiscal 2023, Utah’s Office for Victims of Crime received nearly $17 million in federal funding to provide care to those victims.

After changing the legal definitions of “female” and “male” to exclude transgender people, Morgan Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland’s “Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying and Women’s Opportunities,” or HB257, would bar them from entering sex-specific spaces.

HB257 passed out of the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Monday, with Woods Cross Republican Sen. Todd Weiler joining the two Democrats on that committee in voting against it. Among the list of reasons he said he did not support it was the threat the bill poses to federal funding for victim services.

Among the dozens of transgender Utahns who lined up out the meeting room door to describe how the bill would likely harm them and their families were two Salt Lake City Council members. They asked the committee not to approve the bill because of the burden it would place on the capital city.

“Our airport has received almost half a billion dollars over the last five years in federal funding in order to receive and be eligible for these grants,” said council member Chris Wharton. “We’ve had to provide 39 separate assurances that our facilities will not engage in any discriminatory behavior based on sex or gender identity and we will be ineligible for those grants moving forward.”

Senate staff said Monday that they received questions over the weekend about whether the bill could jeopardize federal funding and are working to find answers. Birkeland told the Senate committee Monday that she and the Senate sponsor of the bill, Riverton Republican Sen. Dan McCay, are working with legislative drafting attorneys to attempt to preserve that funding.

That segregation of trans people from spaces aligning with their gender identity goes beyond restrooms and locker rooms, as it also includes “temporary shelter[s] for an individual who is a victim of abuse,” “rape crisis and services center[s]” and “qualified institutional victim services provider[s],” or any organization addressing domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

According to data provided to the IRS, Utah’s individual rape crisis and interpersonal violence service providers receive as much as 70% of their money from the federal government.

Those grants, however, come with stipulations. One of them is that facilities must follow federal civil rights laws that prohibit them from “discriminating in services and employment because of ... sexual orientation and gender identity,” per award letters from the Justice Department to the Utah Office for Victims of Crime.

The director of that office, Gary Scheller, told lawmakers last week that “we have not been able to verify that this won’t have negative implications with the federal funding that we receive that goes to fund the domestic violence shelters, the rape crisis centers and other victim service providers.”

Hours after a rally at the Capitol urging the state to direct more resources toward the facilities, Scheller was joined in his concerns by the heads of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Utah Domestic Violence Coalition and YWCA Utah.

“As you already know, our programs are already underfunded,” UCASA Executive Director Liliana Olvera-Arbon said during a hearing on the bill in front of the House Business and Labor Committee. “If we lose any additional federal funding, this would be extremely detrimental to victims of sexual assault — our prevention work, specifically, as well.”

(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.

Leading up to a committee vote on the bill, West Jordan Democratic Rep. Ashlee Matthews proposed that the bill be amended to strike the four lines that include access to domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. Matthews’ motion failed, gaining only the support of the one other Democrat on the committee.

Birkeland said she included those lines in the bill because she believes “there are those who victimize women and then will use loopholes like this to gain access to those shelters.” Answering a question earlier in the committee hearing, the representative said she was not able to provide evidence of trans people behaving inappropriately in gender-specific spaces.

‘Already on a shoestring budget’

According to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, nearly 10,000 Utahns have reported being sexually assaulted to law enforcement in the last five years, and about 5,500 people reported aggravated assault by a romantic partner.

While they may access support services, only a fraction of survivors report the crimes perpetrated against them to police.

A 2022 snapshot of sexual assault against Utah women, compiled by Utah State University, says only one in 10 survivors report their assaults. A similar 2023 snapshot of domestic violence says it is an underreported crime, and that law enforcement don’t always code domestic violence as such, so it must be inferred through other data, like the perpetrator’s relationship to the victim.

Office for Victims of Crime award letters obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune indicate that nearly $17 million was awarded in fiscal 2023 to fund programs that help those victims. Similar future funding may be at risk if HB257 is passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Spencer Cox.

Rape crisis centers offer emotional and financial support as survivors deal with the impacts of sexual assault, as well as help to those navigating the criminal justice system.

And domestic violence shelters provide a place for families to escape abuse, and access tools — like education, daycare, housing coordination, career advice and mental health referrals — to help them get back on their feet.

Funds are already limited for the organizations providing these services which, for the most part, rely on donations and government grants. On the website for YWCA Utah’s Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center, which provides walk-in help for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, a popup says: “Due to short staffing issues, walk-in services are limited.”

“We have to understand that the providers — these domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers — they are private nonprofit entities already on a shoestring budget,” Scheller said told lawmakers, mentioning the possibility of adding a fiscal note to the bill to help make up for the possible funding difference.

“I think this could potentially pose some financial implications to those organizations they simply won’t be able to handle in their current budget,” he said.

The Tribune located and analyzed audits submitted to the IRS by nine nonprofits that spent more than $750,000 in federal grants per year. They indicate providers statewide could be at risk of losing approximately 40% of funding. For some providers, the outlook is worse than others.

An audit compiled for New Horizons Crisis Center in rural Richfield shows that in 2022, more than 70% of its budget was made up of federal funds. If it had to limit its services, or was no longer able to operate, the closest providers to New Horizons are around a two hour drive away, depending on weather and traffic.

Neither Birkeland nor Cox returned a request to comment on the bill’s potential impacts on federal funding. The Justice Department also did not immediately respond to an inquiry about Utah’s grants.

‘Not in the business of restricting ... services’

Even if the state’s crisis centers are able to retain federal funding following the bill’s likely passage, the provision in the legislation that would limit trans people’s access to them would likely have devastating impacts on the community.

The limited exceptions under which trans people would be able to get help under the bill, which include having had bottom surgery and a changed birth certificate, are unrealistic for abuse survivors, YWCA Utah’s public policy director Gabriella Archuleta told the House committee.

“Most survivors show up without anything other than the clothes on their back because they have to flee at a moment’s notice,” Archuleta said. “And requiring something like that would cause significant delays in accessing safety.”

Approximately half of trans people become a victim of sexual assault or abuse at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Office for Victims of Crime. 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.

Under Birkeland’s bill, trans people seeking refuge from violence could be made criminals themselves. Violations of the bill, if it becomes law, could be punishable with up to six months in jail.

“We’re not in the business of restricting our critical domestic violence services to anybody,” Archuleta said. “We’re here for anybody who needs it.”