Utah transgender bathroom ban goes into effect after Gov. Cox quickly signs bill

For the second year in a row, the Legislature spent the first weeks of the session on a bill targeting transgender people and made major changes to the bill after public comment was closed.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters gather during a protest in opposition to HB257 in front of the Utah Capitol during the legislative session in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. A transgender bathroom ban became law Gov. Spencer Cox signed the legislation on Tuesday.

Restrictions on where transgender people can use the bathroom in public buildings are now in effect in Utah after Republican Gov. Spencer Cox quickly signed a bill Tuesday that changes the legal definitions of “female” and “male” to categorize Utahns by the reproductive organs of their birth.

Morgan Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland’s “Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying and Women’s Opportunities,” or HB257, will also restrict which locker rooms trans Utahns can use and will require trans students to use a “privacy plan” created with their school.

”We want public facilities that are safe and accommodating for everyone and this bill increases privacy protections for all,” Cox said in a statement Tuesday evening.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the bill on Friday, only 11 days into its annual session, with leaders in both the Utah Senate and House signing the bill on Monday. According to the Utah Consitution, Cox had 10 days to sign or veto the bill, or it would become law without his say.

The law includes criminal penalties for trans people who use changing rooms — locker rooms, showers or dressing rooms — that don’t align with their assigned sex at birth in government owned or controlled buildings. And while there aren’t explicit penalties for using a restroom according to gender identity in such a facility, it does criminalize loitering there, or “if the actor intentionally or knowingly remains unlawfully.”

“Going into a bathroom that is not consistent with your birth gender, or your birth sex, you are putting yourself at greater risk,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. Dan McCay of Riverton, told reporters Friday. “I think that’s the best way for everybody to look at it and say, ‘How do I avoid risk? How do I avoid risk of arrest?’”

Impacted buildings include courthouses, libraries, recreation centers, airports and some sporting arenas.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, talks about HB 257, during the Senate media availability, at the Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

This is the third year in a row state lawmakers have passed restrictions on the transgender community, and the second in which those laws were pushed through in the first weeks of the session.

In 2022, Cox vetoed a bill that would have kept trans girls from joining sports programs that align with their gender identity. The Legislature came together in a special session to override his veto and the law is currently tied up in court.

The governor signed a bill last year that bans gender-affirming surgeries for trans youth and indefinitely bars them from accessing hormone therapy and puberty blockers.

“We will continue to push the Legislature for additional resources to organizations that work to help this important Utah community,” Cox wrote in a statement at the time. “While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures.”

The governor is up for reelection in 2024, and will face four other Republicans — including Blanding state Rep. Phil Lyman, and former Utah Republican Party chair Carson Jorgensen — in a June primary contest.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his 2024 State of the State address at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

In his previous role as lieutenant governor, Cox became known as someone who described himself as a GOP LGBTQ+ ally. He drew national attention in 2016 for a speech he gave in support of the community after a massacre at Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar and dance club in Orlando, that left 49 people dead.

As recently as last February, Cox described himself as “an ally to the LGBTQ community” in a live conversation with The Washington Post.

But as the election draws closer, the incumbent has faced increasing pressure from his political right.

In an apparent jab at Cox’s 2022 veto, his gubernatorial opponent Lyman hosted an event during the State of the State at the University of Utah with Riley Gaines, a former college swimmer who has become an activist against trans women being welcomed into women’s spaces, including athletics.

Cox marked Pride Month in his first two years in office with declarations that encouraged Utahns to “be more inclusive and accepting of the LGBTQ+ members of our community.” This year, though, the governor’s declaration didn’t mention the community at all.

Instead, it said, “the state of Utah values the uniqueness of all individuals within our communities and recognizes that everyone has a place in our state.” And a governor appointee overseeing multiple state agencies ordered Pride Month posts taken down from social media pages.

“I wish it was the governor of 2022 that showed up to sign tonight,” Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday night. Hayes, who identifies as a bisexual member of the LGBTQ+ community, is the only openly queer member of the Legislature.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, consoles Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, during discussion of HB 257 on the House floor at the Capitol, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.

”He [Cox] talked about acceptance and connection in his letter that he wrote [to legislative leaders in 2022] and I know that that was impactful for people,” she added. “I know that seeing this tonight was difficult and not compassionate to continuously target an already vulnerable, marginalized group.”

Hayes said she wants Utah’s transgender community to know “they are not the problem, it is people that choosing to act out of fear who are the problem.”

”And I hope that they know they are loved,” she said, “and there are people here who want them here and care about their feelings too.”

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Bryan Schott and Jeff Parrott contributed to this story.