GOP lawmakers used misinformation about trans Utahns to rally support for bathroom ban

The Tribune found multiple instances where elected Republican officials shared misleading information with their colleagues in the Legislature.

Utah students have been publicly singled out by adults falsely insinuating the kids are transgender in recent weeks. And in the past year, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ Utahns have been on the rise, with 92 reported in 2023.

But after state lawmakers passed restrictions aimed at the transgender community for the third consecutive year, advocates wonder: How much are lawmakers, and the misinformation they shared during debates over the bills, to blame for attacks against this group?

The Salt Lake Tribune combed through arguments lawmakers made this legislative session while discussing HB257, the latest bill to target trans people, and found multiple instances when elected officials shared misinformation to support passage of the new law.

That law — signed by Gov. Spencer Cox just days after it was passed by lawmakers — immediately changed the legal definitions of “female” and “male” to exclude transgender people and includes criminal penalties for trans people who use changing rooms, like locker rooms, showers or dressing rooms, that don’t align with their assigned sex at birth in government-owned or controlled buildings.

It also encourages government facilities to build more single-occupancy spaces. 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.”

One day after Cox called gender-affirming care for transgender people “genital mutilation” — and only two weeks after a state school board member came under fire for singling out a high school student while falsely suggesting she is transgender — a few dozen Utahns sat side-by-side against marble walls outside the restrooms at the Utah Capitol.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists in support of transgender rights hold a sit-in in front of a bathroom at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

The impetus for their gathering was the death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student in Oklahoma — where a similar so-called “bathroom bill” has been in place since 2022 — one day after a fight in a school bathroom. The 16-year-old’s mother said they had been bullied for their gender identity.

The group — draped in blue, pink and white flags — wept, hugged and chanted, with some holding cardboard placards with Benedict’s name. Dallas Rivas, a masculine-presenting transgender man with a goatee, carried a sign that said “Gov. Cox wants ME in the ladies room.”

“That’s all there is, is misinformation,” he told The Tribune. “It impacts us a lot because people just see us as horrible monsters, and we all have jobs, we have hobbies, we have houses, we have cars, we have vacations, we shop for groceries, just like everybody else. We’re just the same and we’re not any different.”

Kids feel unsafe around trans students

About a week after Cox signed HB257, the conservative group Utah Citizens for the Constitution posted an interview with state Rep. Kera Birkeland about her bill “that has to do with transgenderism, and then the bathroom and public spaces.”

Listing the reasons she brought the bill, including for children who have medical conditions, Birkeland added, “Or they’re saying, ‘Hey, there’s this kid that I’ve known since kindergarten as a boy, and now this child is transitioning, and they’re entering my bathroom and my locker room.’ It gives the parent the ability to call the school and say, ‘Hey, I’m not okay with this.’”

Large numbers of students statewide report feeling “somewhat” or “very unsafe” in bathrooms — about 30%, according to the 2023 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey. But that same survey reports that among trans students, that proportion nearly doubles, with 56% giving those answers.

Trans students also reported in the same survey being bullied at double the rate of their peers, both on school property and online. About 1-in-2 said they had been bullied in the past 12 months, and 27.5% responded that they had skipped school at least once in the past 30 days because they felt unsafe.

During debate over the bill, trans students came to the Capitol to challenge whether forcing them to make a “privacy plan” and use a separate bathroom from their peers would make them safer. One trans high school student, Faith, argued it could out other trans students — or make other students aware that they are transgender without them expressly sharing that.

“I don’t want that to happen to other people,” Faith, who was required to create such a plan at her school, 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.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Faith, a high school student who spoke out against Rep. Kera Birkeland's bill to narrow Utah's legal definitions of sex to exclude transgender people (HB 257), at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

A 2023 survey conducted by The Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth, found that 86% of trans and nonbinary youth felt negative mental health impacts as a result of “recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people.”

Parents complained en masse to Utah school board

“Over 20,000 parents reached out to USBE (Utah State Board of Education) on issues of privacy within the school,” Birkeland told members of the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Jan. 22. That number was brought up a week earlier by Corinne Johnson during public comment in a House committee hearing. Johnson is the head of Utah Parents United, a conservative group focused on education-related policy that formed in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Parents and educators have been asking for sex-designated privacy spaces for their children for years,” Johnson said on Jan. 17. “In 2021, we turned to the USBE and asked for guidance. Their model policy did not create sex-designated privacy spaces or privacy plans.”

She continued, “The USBE reported we received more than 20,000 public comments, which is far more than we had anticipated. In fact, it is the most feedback the agency has received through public comment opportunity ever. The parents of Utah have made it clear that the policy was not acceptable.”

When USBE asked for the public’s feedback on proposed “Gender Identity Guidance” in 2022, it did, in fact, receive more than 20,000 responses — “the most feedback the agency has received through a public comment opportunity,” a news release said.

However, not all of the comments the state school board received were from parents.

Parents submitted about 62% of the feedback. Other respondents included teachers, administrators, students, people working in higher education, policymakers and “industry” stakeholders, according to a USBE presentation. The second largest group, making up over 12% of responses, was “other” — individuals who would most likely not be impacted by such guidance.

It’s also unclear what exactly those comments said. A few months after the state school board asked for thoughts on its proposed guidance, board Chair Mark Huntsman announced that it was going to leave developing standards around gender identity to individual districts and schools.

“As the board leadership, and also with input from other board members, we believe that empowering local leaders is the best solution for all of our students and families,” Huntsman said.

During the debate over HB257, the state’s largest teacher’s union opposed the bill in part because of how it would override local decisions. “This is a topic where we don’t need top-down mandates,” said Utah Education Association lobbyist Chase Clyde in a committee hearing.

Prior to issuing the draft guidance, state officials had reportedly “gotten many questions” around gender identity, although many of those were asking how to approach a student’s request to be referred to by a new name or different pronouns.

The document USBE put forward as proposed guidance would have required schools to give students access to “facilities that correspond to their consistently asserted gender identity. No student should be compelled to use an alternative restroom.” It also would have mandated that schools make accommodations for students who want more privacy.

When it comes to restrooms, specifically, a spokesperson for USBE said the entity’s student and family rights specialist has heard from fewer than 10 people expressing concerns about restrooms and locker rooms in the last five years, and those were “balanced between concerns about discrimination and concerns about privacy.”

USBE’s director of privacy, meanwhile, told the spokesperson, “They have not received any privacy complaints surrounding transgender children in the past year.”

Hate crimes statistics

While the House of Representatives debated the restrictions on transgender Utahns, the body’s only openly LGBTQ+ member stood up to ask her colleagues not to pass the bill. Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, told the House that her community had seen a “disproportionate number of hate crimes in this past year targeting LGBTQ people, and I suspect it’s going to continue to rise — we are sending messages that people can be criminal for existing in bathrooms.”

A few speakers later, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, began his comments, saying, “There was a statement that hate crimes against transgender individuals have increased dramatically. According to the [U.S.] Department of Justice, hate crimes related to gender identity decreased by 50% between 2021 and 2022. The 2023 statistics have not yet been released.”

Brammer was seemingly referring to Utah-specific numbers on a Justice Department factsheet, which indicates hate crimes based on gender identity dropped from 10 in 2021 to five in 2022. But numbers on hate crimes can be scattered and inaccurate — even the Justice Department factsheet data differs from information included in the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists in support of transgender rights march at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

That database, which relies on voluntary — not required — reporting from law enforcement agencies to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), says that hate crimes against transgender and gender non-conforming people in Utah went from nine to seven between 2021 and 2022. Five years earlier, prior to the consecutive bills targeting the trans community that the Legislature first began enacting in 2021, the FBI reported one hate crime related to gender identity.

Meanwhile, data published by the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, which also relies on voluntary NIBRS participation, indicates “Anti-Gender Non Conforming” hate crimes have gone up in recent years. That database reports four in 2021, nine in 2022 and nine in 2023.

Hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community overall rose 256% last year, according to BCI, from 36 in 2022 to 92 in 2023.

Casting trans people as predators

After rolling back a substitute version of HB257 that would have removed bathrooms from the restrictions, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, stood on the Senate floor to present the bill a final time.

“I just went through and printed off a few articles,” McCay said, before listing over a dozen cases of sexual assault in bathrooms. “These are real incidences, with real issues related to the wrong gender in the wrong bathroom. I have four daughters. I’m done with it.”

After his speech, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who voted against the bill, asked, “Out of all of the sexual assaults that you documented — which I hope we can agree is less than a quarter, or half, of 1%, of all sexual assaults that have happened — were any of the cases that you discussed perpetrated by transgender individuals?”

“The news stories did not mention whether or not they were trans, they just said that it was a male or female,” McCay responded.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists in support of transgender rights march at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

The Tribune reviewed each of those cases — except for a Utah incident that Birkeland said she heard from one of her constituents, but there appears there is no documentation for the allegation — and could not find any indication that any of the alleged perpetrators were transgender.

Some of the attacks happened in single-occupancy bathrooms, one was a same-gender assault and a woman was charged with felony and false testimony for lying about one of the incidents.

On Jan. 27, the day after the bill’s final passage, McCay responded to a post from a Tribune reporter with three links to stories with headlines about transgender women that he said show “how much safer young women will be in Utah.” One was about an assault that happened in a private residence, another was about an attack by a trans woman in a men’s restroom, and the last one detailed incidents that occurred outside of restrooms.

The incidents shared by McCay came from a document given to lawmakers by the conservative Utah Gay-Straight Coalition, which previously urged the Salt Lake County Council to pass similar restrictions. The cases referenced on the Senate floor were linked in the same order McCay shared them under a section titled, “Bathrooms are often the places of sexual assault of women and children.”

None of the linked articles on the document include allegations in Utah, and many occurred outside the U.S.

The day McCay introduced a substitute that would have taken restrooms out of the bill, the group led by former Salt Lake County clerk candidate Goud Maragani — Utah Gay-Straight Coalition — made a series of posts on X tagging McCay, saying, “@danmccay’s substitute will allow men with penises to use women’s bathrooms.”

Maragani, who is gay, previously sought to censure Republican Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton for her participation in a panel discussion at a fundraiser for Equality Utah’s PAC and for successfully seeking out the group’s endorsement in the 2022 election. Emails show he also sought the LGBTQ+ advocacy group’s support.

Statistically, trans people are four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violence, and half will be sexually abused at some point in their lives, studies show.

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