Utah school board member Natalie Cline questions high school athlete’s gender, causing social media uproar

Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, who led the charge against transgender girls competing in Utah high school sports, also weighed in.

A Utah high school student needs police protection after a state school board member publicly singled out and suggested the student was transgender — without evidence — inciting threats from her followers on social media.

Natalie Cline later apologized — but not before many commenters personally attacked the player, the student’s school district had to provide extra security for her, and the lawmaker who wrote the state’s anti-transgender athlete bill weighed in sharing private information possibly in violation of her own measure.

The latest post from Cline, who has repeatedly come under fire for her controversial posts, came late Tuesday, setting off 16 hours of hateful speculation that continued even after she deleted it Wednesday afternoon. It also prompted a strong statement from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson condemning Cline’s “unconscionable behavior” and calling for the school board to take action against her.

[Read more: Utah governor, lieutenant governor say Natalie Cline has ‘embarrassed the state’]

Cline’s original post included a flyer for a high school girls’ basketball team in Salt Lake County. On her public Facebook page, the ultra-conservative and outspoken member of the Utah State Board of Education wrote “Girls’ basketball” — implying that one of the players was not female, suggesting she shouldn’t be able to play. The girl is a minor. To protect the identity of the athlete, The Salt Lake Tribune is not naming the school.

The comment section quickly became filled with people calling out the player, naming her, threatening her and referring to her with vulgar language. Some identified her school and said they were going to call the principal.

Granite School District, which covers the school the student attends, said in a statement that it has “significant concerns” with Cline’s post and has been working to ensure the student’s safety and and support her.

State Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, was one of the few voices in the comments criticizing Cline for the post — though she could now face charges for the information she revealed.

Birkeland led the charge against transgender girls competing in Utah high school sports, sponsoring HB11 in 2022 that banned them from girls’ teams.

Since her measure was passed by the Legislature — in a vote overriding the governor’s veto — there has been a slew of accusations from parents and others trying to call out players they think might be transgender at schools across the state.

Last month, the father of a junior varsity girl’s basketball player confronted administrators, demanding one of the girls not be allowed to play because he believed she was transgender. The girl was not the same athlete from Cline’s post.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline, District 9, Thursday, August 3, 2023.

Other similar incidents have occurred — including another in 2022 where two parents challenged the gender of a girl who had beaten their children at a track meet — but the Utah High School Activities Association has so far not released data on their frequency. The USHAA determined in that first case, after pulling the accused student’s records back to kindergarten, that she has always been female.

That is also the case with the girl Cline questioned, according to Equality Utah. Cline later updated her apology to include that, but continued to discuss the girl’s body.

“She does have a larger build, like her parents,” Cline wrote. “We live in strange times when it is normal to pause and wonder if people are what they say they are because of the push to normalize transgenderism in our society.”

Cline also said she talked to the father in the other recent case.

As a lawsuit against Birkeland’s bill moves forward, athletes currently must provide their birth certificate documenting their age and gender to be able to play in Utah or, for transgender girls, provide documentation showing they have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy. In the cases that have drawn public attention, the school districts have said the targeted athletes have met the requirements.

Birkeland cited the Utah “laws regarding student athletics” and said Wednesday on Cline’s post that the state school board member was acting “in poor taste” in her comments about the player.

“Has anyone talked to the student, the parents or the school?” she wrote. “Do you know if this KID is a boy or girl? This child is a minor being mocked and called out without any facts or proof.”

(Screenshot) On Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2023, state Rep. Kera Birkeland commented on a post by state school board member Natalie Cline, where Cline had accused a high school athlete of being transgender.

In a later edit to her comment, Birkeland added a demand that Cline apologize and delete the post. Cline did — which is also not something the school board member has done often after making controversial public remarks.

In that new post she wrote: “To protect the player, I have removed the post. My deepest apologies for the negative attention my post drew to innocent students and their families.”

But she also continued by saying “good faith efforts” to be inclusive of all girls’ differing bodies have “been taken advantage of” and “leads to suspicion about girls who are more buff than most.”

Did Birkeland break rule with her response?

At the same time, Birkeland may have violated the provisions of her own bill with her comments, which revealed protected information.

In her response to Cline, Birkeland referenced the commission that currently is charged with hearing the cases of any transgender girl who wants to play on their high school girls’ sports teams. She said it has had at least four transgender students come before it, and that “all 4 have been denied participation on the team that doesn’t align with their sex at birth.”

That aligns with what parents have said about going before the commission, saying the standards seem impassable for any kid to be allowed to play. But the specific rulings on their cases have never been publicly revealed before.

[Read more: Will Utah lawmaker face charges for sharing protected information on transgender athlete cases?]

A player’s name, as well as any rulings — even detached from a specific name — are considered protected records under the language of Birkeland’s measure that created the School Activity Eligibility Commission.

The law notes that any determinations made by the commission are done so in closed session and are to be shared only with the athlete and their local athletic association for purposes of confirming eligibility to play. There is a provision in state records law that allows members of the Utah Legislature to receive protected records.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Rep. Kera Birkeland, listens to discussions on her bill, during the legislative special session to overture Gov. Cox veto on HB11, on Friday, March 25, 2022.

It is unclear how Birkeland seems to be familiar with the commission’s rulings. Under state records law, it notes that a person — including “a public employee or other person who has lawful access to any private, controlled, or protected record” — who “intentionally discloses” records that are classified as protected could be charged with a class B misdemeanor.

The Utah attorney general’s office, which oversees the transgender sports eligibility commission, has previously declined to provide the numbers on how many cases there have been and how those were decided, citing the privacy provisions of the law.

The office declined to comment on the issue Wednesday. And Birkeland did not respond to requests from The Tribune. A spokesperson for the Utah House only stated, “I believe Natalie Cline has since deleted her post” and cited past Tribune reporting on commission meetings.

The Tribune has previously noted that the commission appears to have talked about four student cases based on discussions during their open portions where students have been identified as Student A, Student B, Student C and Student D. The commission is required to follow open meetings laws, and so it must post an agenda and minutes from its discussions. It has met six times.

The chair of the trans sports commission, sports medicine physician Dr. Michael Henrie, also did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on Birkeland’s disclosure of the rulings in those cases.

Cline’s past and new outcry

Cline’s post is not the first of hers to draw attention since she took her seat on the 15-member board that oversees public education in the state.

She was first elected in November 2020, and the Republican firebrand has continued to share controversial opinions on social media, frequently drawing attention and concern and more than 80 complaints during her time representing District 9, which covers the southern part of Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County.

Her posts have often targeted marginalized groups, particularly the LGBTQ+ community. Cline’s first controversial social media posts came less than a month into her tenure and mocked LGBTQ students and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Most recently, she was criticized last fall for a Facebook post where she accused teachers of being “complicit in the grooming of children” and “brainwashing them into queer, gender bending ideologies.” She was cleared of any wrongdoing in that after a review.

The board’s leadership has once reprimanded Cline, in fall 2021 — marking the first time a state school board member has ever been disciplined. That came after Cline posted a message critical of LGBTQ students that led some of her followers to threaten violence.

Outside of that, the board’s leadership has also often issued statements distancing itself from Cline, including when she shared the name of a teacher she believed was instructing students that “communism is better than our form of government.” Several responded by calling on social media for the teacher to be fired and urging the teacher to leave the country.

Her post Tuesday appears to be the first where she has targeted a specific student.

She apologized for that, saying “it created a firestorm around one of the players pictured. Personal information as well as derogatory comments about the player were made by several commenters.”

[Read more: Utah school board promises ‘prompt action’ against Natalie Cline — the Legislature eyes impeachment]

Birkeland also commented on that updated post from Cline, adding: “It is not brave or responsible to attack someone based on their outward appearance, especially when it’s a child. It’s horrible.” The lawmaker said if the player was her child, she would be talking to an attorney about Cline’s attack.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Troy Williams, Marina Lowe and Sue Robbins listen to the House of Representatives at the Capitol, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.

Several groups also spoke out against Cline’s post, with Equality Utah describing it as “a new level of depravity and bullying” and calling for her resignation. They said Cline is harming the children she was elected as a school board member to represent.

“Cline’s post perpetuates a modern day witch-hunt, where hysterical adults police the bodies of children to determine if they are masculine or feminine enough,” the LGBTQ+ group’s leadership wrote. “… No child, be they straight, gay, or transgender, should be mocked, doxxed and humiliated by elected officials.”

Darlene McDonald, an activist and director of the 1Utah Project, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that she’s worried about the student identified by Cline. But she also said Birkeland is, at last partly, responsible for those kinds of accusations.

“Posts like this targets individuals and put their lives physically and emotionally, at risk,” McDonald wrote.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darlene McDonald speaks during public comment during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

McDonald said this kind of behavior is spurred by Republican lawmakers, specifically naming Birkeland, when they target transgender individuals with legislation. The state also passed this session — and the governor signed late last month — a bill banning transgender Utahns from using bathrooms and locker rooms in government buildings; that was also sponsored by Birkeland.

And last year, legislators banned gender-affirming treatment for minors here.

Both McDonald and Equality Utah worry that posts and attacks like Cline’s, as well as confrontations, will increase.

McDonald mentioned, too, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s push to limit children’s access to social media. She said: “That does nothing to protect them from the parents and elected officials like Natalie Cline that has targeted them ON social media.”

But even with the renewed outcry, the Utah State Board of Education’s leadership has repeatedly said it does not have the power to unseat Cline as an elected official.

Members are elected to serve four-year terms. Cline’s term is up this November, and she has filed to run again. She faces Amanda B. Bollinger, who is running as a Republican and is a longtime administrator in Jordan School District; the two will face off in the party’s primary. Will Shiflett, who oversees a business program at Salt Lake Community College, has filed as the sole Democrat in the race.